Great Gatsby, it’s Gorsky!

Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

gorsky frontThis novel, a bold reimagining of The Great Gatsby relocated to contemporary London, longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize, has turned out to be a bit of a marmite novel. There are roughly three camps of thought about it:

  1. Those who love The Great Gatsby and loved what Goldsworthy has done with Gorsky.
  2. Those who love The Great Gatsby but didn’t like what Goldsworthy has done with Gorsky.
  3. Those who don’t love either The Great Gatsby or what Goldsworthy has done with Gorsky.

There ought to be a fourth – non-Fitzgerald fans who enjoyed Gorsky, but I’ve not encountered any yet. They must exist, but everyone I know who has read this has also read Gatsby.

I will state at the outset that I’m firmly of the camp 1. persuasion.  You can read my views onThe Great Gatsby here.

The set-up is broadly the same; Nick is Nikola – a Serbian who has ended up working in a dusty bookshop in Chelsea – which he calls Chelski due to the influx of Russians:

The Russians looked tougher, beefier and coarser, even when they were undeniably handsome. I don’t mean Russians in general, of course, but the Russians in this handful of London’s richest postcodes, that self-selected set of men belonging to the generation which in the West would have been called baby-boomers. In Russia, their lives had spun full circle. They grew up in shared apartments, made billions in crude oil, gas or sophisticated scams, spent it on house, horses, whores, and occasionally hired killers, and finally returned to playing cards with each other just as they did in the bad old Communist days, only now surrounded by squads of bodyguards.

One of Nick’s regular customers is Natalia, who has a penchant for art books, and Nick gets quite an infatuation on her. She’s not at all like his other customers:

Morning regulars hereabouts mostly meant elderly ladies in carefully coiffed, inky-white helmets of hair, who had been up since four thirty, and who enjoyed reading stories about cultured spinsters by the likes of Anita Brookner and Salley Vickers, and empathising fully, even though they were not spinsters themselves. Only a banker’s widow can afford to live alone in this part of town, and some of these tough old birds had been multiply widowed by multiple bankers.

Delivering Natalia’s purchases, Nick meets her personal trainer Gery Pekarova, a former champion gymnast from Bulgaria; Nick and Gery will become friends with benefits. Nick also meets Tom Summerscale, Natalia’s English husband whom he will come to loathe when he discovers his philandering nature. Nick is able to fit in anywhere, he’s a good listener and a likeable young man. One day, Roman Borisovich Gorsky turns up at the shop and commissions Nick to furnish a library for him in the palace he is creating in an old building on the Thames. Nick moves into a cottage in the corner of the grounds, where he is also next door to the Summerscales. Gorsky is, of course, also totally infatuated with Natalia – I keep wanting to call her Daisy, but in this book, Daisy is the name of her daughter!

So Nick is sucked into this world of the super-rich – it rather reminded me of Richard Roper’s lifestyle in The Night Manager (but minus the espionage and overt arms-dealing!). Leaving Gorsky’s party, Nick finds himself picked up in his limousine by Gorsky who has abandoned his own guests. They cruise:

‘Don’t you just love London? Centuries of uninterrupted cash-flow. All that historic, uncountable money, chests and chests of it, from the four corners of the world…’
His head turned towards the Natural History Museum. ‘But I don’t like the English,’ he continued. ‘They have an amphibian quality, a slipperiness that comes of their squatting on an island, able to evade the grasp of their neighbours.’

Goldsworthy’s London, (she is a Serbian), is one viewed through the eyes of immigrants and those passing through. The English don’t feature much at all – just the brash Tom and Nikolai’s old-fashioned gentleman boss, Christopher. This city of foreigners idea is reinforced in a great set-piece when Natalia drags Gorsky to her daughter’s prep-school production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The millionaires’ children at this school may all have cut-glass English accents, but they come from all corners of the globe.

Knowing that this novel is a doomed romance, it was a surprise to find that Gorsky was such a comic novel. Our narrator Nick’s observations are full of dry humour (viz the second quote above) and this added a lightheartedness to the text that made up for the lack of subtlety that most of this group of characters exhibits.

Gorsky backThe temptation is to over-compare the Gatsby/Gorsky correlations as you read, but that approach is more likely to produce a no 2, or 3. response. The best thing is to forget Gatsby and just dive in. Gorsky is a clever tale and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)

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P.S. Although I love the cover of Gorsky – given that almost all of the action takes part in Kensington and Chelsea – the pedant in me wonders why the front cover shows the Thames of the East End of London, relegating Chelski to the rear (above). Of course, it’s so we instantly ‘know’ it’s the river Thames, by using that loop around the Isle of Dogs from the Eastenders logo!

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Source: Own copy

Vesna Goldworthy, Gorsky (Chatto & Windus, April 2015) – Vintage paperback, 288 pages.

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