I undertook to review this novel, Francis Spufford’s first, partly because I knew of the author’s non-fictional powers, but chiefly because the book is set against a peculiarly compelling background: the island of Manhattan in 1746, eighty-two years after it passed from Dutch to British sovereignty, and thirty-seven years before it became American.
I was right in my purpose, too. As fiction, Golden Hill is too obfuscatory for my tastes, but as a work of historical evocation it is just wonderful. The plot concerns the arrival in New York, for mysteriously ill-defined purposes, of a solitary young Briton called simply Mr Smith, and it records his tangled progress through the colonial society of the day – from the underworld to the gubernatorial, confusedly into sex and briefly into jail. This gives Spufford the opportunity to take us, too, intimately through the infant metropolis, which had a population of about seven thousand souls in those days and was more or less confined to the lower parts of Mannahatta, with outposts up at the Bouwerij and over the East River in Breuckelen.
We know just where we are, topographically. The Golden Hill of the title, central to the book’s narrative, ran into Broad Way and is, I suspect, the historical predecessor of one of the mesh of modern streets that still feed Broadway south of Wall Street. Historically, too, we are on