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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is a period romp told with panache

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Francis Spufford is a master of the intricacies of the English language and he proves it in Golden Hill.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

This book was published in 2016, when it won the Costa Book Award for a first novel, but is written in the literary style of the era in which it is set – the mid-18th century.

It is an entertaining, if occasionally convoluted, plot which revolves around Richard Smith, a young man from London who arrives in New York with a bill of exchange to the value of £1,000.

This was a great deal of money in 1746 and the trader Lovell, who is expected to honour the bill within 60 days, is understandably suspicious of the newly-arrived stranger.

What follows is a series of mishaps and capers reminiscent of the novels of the time – Fielding in particular springs to mind and indeed the author acknowledges his debt to Fielding’s Joseph Andrews.

Manhattan society does not trust the Englishman and so he has to prove he is honest and that the bill is genuine. Smith forms an attachment to Lovell’s daughter Tabitha, but it is a relationship built on verbal barbs and misunderstandings.

Smith frequents the coffee houses of New York where he makes acquaintances and forms friendships. He narrowly escapes being murdered on a few occasions, serves time in prison, loses his money, and the trust of his new friends.

By turns both bawdy and violent, but not excessively so, the story moves along at a fierce pace and the reader is kept in the dark regarding Smith's motives for getting the money - is he a conman? is he genuine? what does he want the money for?

The reveal when it does come is both surprising and satisfying.

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