Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

What a joy this book was. It’s on my list of best books of 2024 – the first and hopefully not the last – because it is a rollicking, swash-buckling, super-hero like, action packed story of Mr Smith landing in New York with a promise for money, and people not sure whether to believe him or not. £1000 in sterling was a lot of money in 1745 and because Manhattan was so small, word soon spread with the community divided about whether he had forged the promise or not. The tension is then built because he won’t say what the money is for, and so of course that excites the gossips even more.

This then is the story of what happens to Smith in the days waiting for confirmation that the note of promise is true and what an exciting time he has. There is a naked woman, sex, acting in a play, spies, a duel, jail, a love interest with the most shrewish of women and a brilliant chase scene. Smith is either building bridges or burning them and so the story is a roller-coaster of excitement without ever losing sight of the fact that we are in the 18th century. This is helped by the nod to the grammatical constructions and vocabulary of the time, particularly in the chapters that are letters.

I can see this book as a series for Netflix, not just because of the action but also because Spufford has conjured the time and place so well.

Smith had instructed his brain to ignore the information of his nose – schooled reflex of the city-dweller, in the face of stinks – and it took a little time for his brain to take the news that there were few stinks to ignore. The vapour from the scalps remained the worst of New-York’s bouquet. A little fishe, a little excrement: guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes. A Scene of City-Life, his eyes reported. A Country-Walk, in a Seaside District, his nostrils counter-argued. No smells; also, he realised, no beggars. He had been strolling the city’s densest quarter for minutes, and yet no street-Arab children pepper-pointed with sores had circled him round, no gummy crones exhaling gin had plucked his sleeve, no mutilated men in the rags of uniform had groaned at him from the ground.


Brilliant to tell us what New-York was like by what it wasn’t and a wonderful way to contrast it with London.

There is a twist or reveal at the end of the story, one which has been built up to the whole time – why does he want the money? But then there is a second – a much slyer one that slipped by unnoticed and one that is much more egregious to the people. This is after all America, and America was built on such things.

Questions for book club discussion

  • The ending seems to fall off a cliff. What happens to Smith? Were you satisfied by the ending or not?
  • There are several references to novels in the book and of the narrator interrupting the story to comment. What do these tell us about the purpose of a novel and its limitations?
  • What do the adventures reveal about the hypocrisies and facades of the people around Smith?
  • Is there a significance to the title Golden Hill?
  • How well does the book show us the menace that lurks behind New-York’s daily life? (This might be the same question as two above it.)
  • Does anybody know anything about the play Cato? (I don’t) How is it relevant to this story?

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