Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.
Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.