Open main menu

Black Friday deals - an avalanche of bookish bargains, plus extra discounts and clearance items - live now at Foyles

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Buy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford at or

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Much, much more than an engaging piece of historical fiction. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2016
Publisher: Faber and Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0571225200

Share on: Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Instagram

Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017

Winner: the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017

Winner: The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize 2017

One rainy November evening a charming, handsome stranger fresh from the boat arrived at a counting house on Golden Hill Street in New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island. He had an unusual proposition concerning an order for £1000 (a huge amount in 1746) which he wished to cash. It was tempting, but could the young man be trusted? Mr Smith wouldn't explain the whys and wherefores of the transaction, or where he comes from or what he's planning to do with the money: it's almost as though he wants to be suspected. Should the New York merchants trust him - and risk their money? But if they refuse him they risk their credit.

I could begin by listing all the things in this novel which I dislike in just about every other book: the information which our protagonist knows but which isn't divulged to his faithful readers until the final pages. Normally this would make me feel cheated, but somehow it worked. Then there's the third person narrative voice, complete with the style appropriate to the late eighteenth century and even Random Capitalisation of Nouns (admittedly only in letters), all of which normally annoy me, but somehow it not only works, but had me laughing out loud. Similarly with Smith's bungling over a card game and a duel should not have been funny to me (farce has never appealed) but I laughed and even went back and read pages again, just for the pleasure of it.

Perhaps what made all this work for me was that Spufford has made New York into a character in its own right. There are precursors of the place it will become - I regularly found myself playing 'spot the place name'. He brings the streets to life, the salons glow and it would be easy to disregard the amount of research which must have gone into producing this effect: it appears effortless and you feel that you're in the hands of an author who knows a great deal more about the subject than he feels the need to tell us. Spufford is not in the least heavy handed with his knowledge.

I read Golden Hill thinking that it was going to be a piece of engaging historical fiction. I would have been satisfied with that but the story draws you in and it becomes so much more. No - I'm not going to explain. It's a book which you really should read for yourself.

Three other books were shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award: The Good Guy by Susan Beale, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal and The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd. 2016 was a very good year for first novels.

Please share on: Facebook Facebook, Follow us on Twitter Twitter and Follow us on Instagram Instagram

Buy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Golden Hill by Francis Spufford at


Like to comment on this review?

Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.