Deja vu is a funny thing. That sense of repetition, unmistakable sameness. When I began reading Gorsky, I began to feel it completely.
At first I thought hey, maybe it’s because Nik is a bookseller. I carried on. Gorsky arrived in his magnificence, Natalia entered the narrative as a beautiful, intelligent and sad presence in Nik’s fantasy-romance. Still it seemed all a bit familiar. I chalked it up to having read something similar in the past. Then Natalia’s friend Gery shows up, a former gymnast who is immediately set up with Nik by Natalia, and I realised that I was reading The Great Gatsby. Or at least, The Great Gorsky.
I decided to give the book the benefit of the doubt, and continue reading – so often, reviews will spoil the endings and while I wanted to know whether this really was a purposeful retelling or awkward accident, I figured I’d wait until the end. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. Knowing it was a retelling from the outset would have removed that aching nag that this was too close to comfort, or that perhaps I had officially read too many books.
When Baz Luhrman decided to make the lavish tale of The Great Gatsby into a movie, many of us were swept into a Fitzgerald fever. As an obsessive collector of sets, I bought many of the beautiful art deco Fitzgeralds published by Alma Books and ploughed through the majority of his novels. While I do not believe him to be a master storyteller, nor Gatsby the best novel ever, I did enjoy it and have a soft spot for his penchant for restless, drunken, rich young men persuing complex women who cannot love them.
Maybe this is why I can’t quite understand why this book exists… I hate that I feel this way about a piece of art, which I thoroughly believe has intrinsic worth of its own, but I’m just a little at a loss when it comes to retellings. I think my problem is that I can’t see where it fits to me in the long term, and how I feel that it would have so many more strengths had it followed an original plot.
This is not to say that it is a bad book. It is not. Goldsworthy delves deeply into a London of extreme wealth, touches upon interesting (and brutal) moments in Eastern European and Russian history, and has some absolutely beautiful moments of prose. It also provides a great list of Russian authors, poets and artists to investigate after the novel is over.
It did keep me reading and, partly due to its short length, I finished it relatively quickly. However I cannot completely give over that this was somewhat linked to being baffled by a reused plot. I am disappointed because these plus points are exactly what I’d love to read more of – and I would be fascinated to see what else Goldsworthy writes, or what she could have written other than this.
I suspect that this is partly an intrinsic bias I have against retellings and reimaginings; unless they significantly add something to the story, I’m not interested. Updating difficult-to-access texts such as the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare for a modern audience is something I’m all behind – whatever gets people interested in these great stories is a good thing. The problem is, I don’t think Gorsky really adds too much to Gatsby, and this retelling of the plot means that the characters often feel underdeveloped and wan. If I hadn’t have read Gatsby before, I suspect I may have thought them to be very flat and in fact its only because of what I know about who they are supposed to represent that they feel more fleshed out than they really are.
I really, really hate that I’ve given this such a blunt review but I wanted to be honest about what I was feeling and my frustrations with what could have been.
Thanks to Chatto & Windus, and Penguin Random House for sending over a review copy to the shop.
Why it should win
While probably my least favourite of the longlist so far, Gorsky is a beautiful story, with lavish descriptions and good pacing. Goldsworthy is a great writer, and I look forward to reading her other works.