Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | January 2020 | 10 minutes (2,603 words)
Recently while running, I listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on audiobook. It was recommended to me because of my interest in suspenseful novels and books about art.
An hour into listening, I was puzzled by the book’s two-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists. Back from a run, I read that although the book had won the Pulitzer Prize, there’d been some controversy surrounding the award. Francine Prose drew attention to Tartt’s lazy clichés. James Wood described the book as a children’s story. The Paris Review, London Review of Books, and Sunday Times had similar things to say.
Several chapters later, I realized that none of the criticisms had objected to the book’s racism. After another search, I was relieved to see that one article on Salon questioned the book’s “wishful portrayal of people of color,” all of whom played the part of loving, docile servants. The writer carefully dissected these characters, revealing the “banal multicultural textbook” fantasy of an old world with its antique paintings and selfless servants, which continually looked away from real racial dynamics.
But by the end of the article, the writer had still not mentioned, in her meticulous study of racial blind spots as they applied to peripheral characters, the racism at the book’s very center, in the character of the Russian Boris who is the protagonist’s nemesis and best friend.
I’m especially surprised that this had gone entirely unnoticed in the U.S ever since the book’s publication in 2013, even though literary conversations of the past decade have often simultaneously been conversations about identity.