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Published On: Mon, Sep 11th, 2017

The Golden House review: Salman Rushdie returns to realism with a compelling thriller


The Golden House by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

Set in New York, this is a compelling thriller with a pinch of fantasy, populated by larger-than-life characters.

René Unterlinden, an aspiring film director, narrates. As the novel opens, he still lives with his gentle, academic parents who have brought him up to value art, knowledge and love. Their once-cheap house overlooks MacDougal–Sullivan Gardens in Greenwich Village. As a new president is inaugurated, Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into the most expensive house in this now exclusive district.

Exiles from an unnamed country (although it’s clearly India), all have new identities, the three sons in thrall to their sinister father.

Personal identity is a key theme, woven into the broader subject of national identity, contested during the eight years of what is obviously Obama’s administration. 

The false dawn of this presidency turns into the nightmare of the Trump election, the presidential candidate dubbed The Joker by René. America, to René and to Rushdie, appears to be entering a period of psychosis, with 90 million voters abstaining in the election.

Against this disturbing background is set the Greek tragedy of the Golden family. The eldest brother is autistic, the middle brother an artist and their much younger half-brother is struggling with his gender. All are at odds with one another and supervised by their father, even when they think they are breaking free.

The middle brother has the clearest sense of the family’s difficulties. “The trouble with trying to escape yourself is that you bring yourself along for the ride,” he tells René. Into this unhappy mix comes an ambitious Russian woman, Vasilisa, who succeeds in marrying Nero and exercising almost complete control over her ageing husband.

The Goldens are a subject of fascination to René, who sees their mysterious story as the subject for a feature film.

René is that quintessential first-person narrator, the outsider befriended by the family, even invited to move into the house after his parents’ sudden death and who then betrays them by telling their story to others. But his betrayal of Nero is greater still. “I crossed the line that divides the reporter from the participant.”

This powerfully cinematic novel, enriched by references to literature, popular culture and film, is dense, detailed and rewarding, displaying one of our leading novelists at the top of his game. 



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