Testaments.jpg

I can’t think of any other literary novel that has had such a build-up prior to its release. Details of the story were shrouded in secrecy and its shortlisting on this year’s Booker Prize all contributed to an anticipation which culminated in a midnight release of the book this week and a live interview with Atwood that was streamed to over 1,300 cinemas around the world. I have to admit, I jumped right on board the hype train and read the novel over the course of a day. Personally, I was especially excited to see how the story would continue 15 years in the future after Offred’s final scene and discover more about Gilead’s downfall because I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” so recently. In “The Testaments” we get a lot more about the workings of this dystopian society because it’s narrated from three different perspectives who all have unique views and access to different layers of this totalitarian state. In doing so, Atwood offers further perceptive critiques on the nature of patriarchal society and presents moving psychological insights into how people survive (or perish) within oppressive regimes. I have to say the way the central characters’ stories come together is a bit forced and the plot is somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, it’s a continuously engaging and gripping experience reading this book.

Central to the tale is Aunt Lydia who appeared in the original novel in Offred’s memories as an imposing tyrant who trains her as a handmaid. In “The Testaments” we get Lydia’s secret account that she stows in her private library describing her journey from pre-Gilead times as a left-leaning judge to her imprisonment, torture and eventual position as one of the architects of Gilead society. She’s a complex and difficult character who hoards secrets as a means of maintaining her power: “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” Lydia experienced a traumatic wakeup call as she witnessed a democratic American society shift to a puritanical totalitarian state: “People became frightened. Then they became angry. The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame. Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? Because we’d been hearing these things for so long I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” Rather than perish she proved her durability as a survivor and someone willing to compromise her morals in order to persist. She also takes pleasure in her power and position when denouncing her enemies or extinguishing those she views as weak: “I judged. I pronounced the sentence.” I appreciate the way Atwood depicts Lydia as an oppressor, but someone who is nonetheless sympathetic in her desire to live no matter the cost and becomes entombed in a perilous loneliness: “Having no friends, I must make due with enemies.”

The other two narrators are much younger and were born in Gilead so have no knowledge of a world without it. But they live on opposite sides of the border. Agnes lives in a privileged family within Gilead. She’s raised as a true believer and reared to become the high class wife of a commander. Daisy lives in the neighbouring democratic state of Canada and becomes involved with anti-Gilead protests. Both these girls experience severe disruptions when their intended paths in life abruptly change due to larger events and secrets are unearthed about their true origins. While their journeys are compelling the way Atwood brings together her three narrators’ stories relies too heavily on chance and convenience. The girls also perhaps serve too neatly as optimistic perspectives in contrast to Aunt Lydia’s position of corruption and vengeance. They are innocent as Agnes explains “We’d been protected… I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.”

Something I found really powerful about Agnes’ story is her friendship with a girl named Becka. While the other girls in their class enthusiastically embrace the idea of marrying a commander for the privileges such a position will bestow upon them, Becka adamantly refuses to marry because of her fear of sexual contact with men. It’s clear she’s experienced some unconfessed trauma, but Agnes doesn’t feel like she can discuss this with Becka because of her fear of the associated repercussions. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” meaningfully depicted the way women hesitate to be emotionally open for fear of being denounced, “The Testaments” further develops the way in which state pressure can reinforce these silences and prevent close friendships.

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

More than the circumstances of the stories being portrayed, I probably felt more moved by the parallels between events “The Testaments” depicts and instances in the real world. Atwood has famously stated how “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t portray anything which hasn’t already happened in human history and the same is true for this novel: governments “temporarily” take away citizens’ rights in a move towards totalitarianism; children are stolen from their birth parents and allocated to state-sanctioned couples; men use their positions of power to sexually abuse young females and sacred texts are wilfully misinterpreted for sinister motives. It’s all depressingly familiar and current. These universal themes about the deleterious effects of corrupt patriarchal governments reinforce the enduring power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and show why it’s become such a well-known part of popular culture. That Atwood feels the need to further examine the machinations of such a brutal regime and the moral conundrums these societal shifts present to individuals feels prescient.

Atwood has stated that one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to write a sequel to her famous novel from 1985 is that it took a long time to decide upon a structure and choice of narrators. I can’t imagine any better trio of narrators to continue Gilead’s tale than the ones she’s chosen. But strangely I wish she’d concentrated less on building such a tightly woven plot and neat conclusions for her characters. Rather than being taken to the centre of Gilead I’d have been content to dwell in the periphery with characters whose lives have hardened from living in such a restrictive society. Part of the power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in the necessarily restricted view and understanding Offred had of her surroundings. It’s what heightened the horror because this experience more accurately reflects our own. This new novel will satisfy the curiosity many Atwood fans who want to know what happened next, but at the expense of that terrifying ignorance we felt dwelling in the restrictive cowl of a handmaid’s bonnet.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
5 CommentsPost a comment
Handmaids.jpg

In my late teens and early adulthood I had a particular fascination with both utopian and dystopian fiction – so naturally “The Handmaid’s Tale” made an appearance on my reading list. But that was many years ago. Rereading it now as a more socially and politically aware adult I think I’m sensitive to many aspects of it that I probably wasn’t conscious of when experiencing this story for the first time. Back then I probably primarily read it as a thriller about a woman torn from her husband and child and forced to live in sexual subjugation under nightmarish circumstances. But that wasn’t the only way I connected with the story. I related to it and understood the shroud of silence Offred must maintain in order to survive. When I came out as gay in my teenager years I was explicitly instructed by my parents, teachers and school guidance counsellor not to speak about this facet of my identity with people in general. So my strongest memory of reading this novel was in the canny way Offred chose her moments to reveal her true beliefs and feelings to others rather than toe the line.

When I first read this novel I was struck by the way Atwood describes how the Republic of Gilead punishes homosexual acts with hanging and, of course, I was aware that such executions have been carried out by many oppressive regimes over time. I was struck that Offred’s lesbian friend Moira was in a particularly vulnerable position. The bitter poignancy of Offred’s eventual reunion with her in a brothel felt particularly sad. It made me consider what compromises must to be made for the sake of survival. Like Offred, I had hoped she’d become a revolutionary fighting against the regime after escaping from the government-trained Aunts. I was aware of the cost of sacrificing one’s own safety and security for the sake of a larger cause, but I still thought Moira was cowardly for not taking a stand. But reading it now I feel Moira’s pain more acutely: the deleterious effects she must have felt smothering her own values for the sake of living and the crushing hopelessness knowing an act of rebellion would be futile because it would only end with her own death.

So my reactions to reading this novel that first time were mainly centred on the way I personally related to its story. While I don’t think that’s a “wrong” way to read the novel, I’m more conscious now (as Atwood has famously and repeatedly stated) that there’s nothing in this novel that hasn’t occurred in real life within some society. It’s a point which is even emphasized at the end of the novel when the speaker presenting a lecture regarding Offred’s transcribed tale describes how the Republic of Gilead’s policies are an amalgamation of different practices and regulations from a selection of governments. But I was reminded of the real-world relevancy of the novel again recently when reading the memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country” by Zeba Talkhani because the author remarks how she didn’t consider “The Handmaid’s Tale” fiction because it felt like her reality when growing up in Saudi Arabia.

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When reading Offred’s tale this time I thought more closely about these parallels and the realities being portrayed in the story. Certainly there’s been a lot of progress in the world since this novel was first published in 1985. But, at the same time, I think many of us have a pressing awareness how the patriarchy will always try to control and regulate women’s bodies as well as suppress any voices which pose a threat to its power structures. So it feels not only relevant but entirely apt that Atwood has written a soon-to-be-published sequel to this novel called “The Testaments”. Sadly, it feels like there’s no better time to return to the fictional world of Gilead to gain a different perspective on the current state of the world. Since I reread this novel partly as preparation for reading this forthcoming sequel I tried to pay attention to how its story might continue. The tight embargo on “The Testaments” means all we know about this second book is that it takes place fifteen years after Offred leaves for an unknown destination and that it’s narrated from the perspectives of three different women from Gilead. The imagery of the new cover includes a green smock so I wonder if one or all of these perspectives will be narrated by Marthas who are older infertile domestic servants within Gilead that only dress in green. I’m also hoping this new tale will give some more clues about Offred’s real identity since we never know her true name or what ultimately became of her.

Rereading this novel also gave me a renewed appreciation for the beauty of Atwood’s prose in her use of metaphorical language such as when Offred describes an egg or the subtly of her psychological portrayal as Offred becomes more attuned to the mechanisms behind her oppression. While I’ve always been a fan of Atwood I haven’t read much of her fiction in the past several years except her novel “Hag-Seed” which is a fascinating remix of “The Tempest”. But this rereading also reminded me how richly imaginative and wild Atwood’s fiction can get. I was also surprised how gripping I found it though I already knew the plot. Each twist and revelation in Offred’s story felt fresh because we’re so closely rooted in the tense psychological reality of her experience. It’s made me even more eager to know what happens next!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
2 CommentsPost a comment
Ordinary People.jpg

In a way I felt a special connection with this novel centred around a location so familiar to me. Diana Evans’ “Ordinary People” is set roughly a decade ago – spanning between the year of Obama’s election to the year of Michael Jackson’s death - in an area of south London very close to where I live. So I could instantly visualize the landmarks, parks and even the bus routes she references. Her characters eat in some restaurants I’ve eaten in and even if a restaurant wasn’t named I still knew which one she meant based on her description of the tables. That’s how close to home it was for me! 

The novel is truly saturated with details about London life because it recounts with great specificity tube journeys, walks and daily life in the capital amidst the stories of two couples whose relationships are in a state of flux. Both couples have children. Each of them finds the ordinariness of daily existence is gradually draining away their sense of individuality and their ability to dream of any other way of life. In this context it makes sense that Evans loads her novel with such a density of detail because it allows the reader to fully visualize and feel the texture of their lives weighing upon them. A working father named Damian has a panic attack amidst his stultifying routine of getting a sandwich on his lunch break. A freelance journalist and mother named Melissa feels like she’s suffocating staying in her house day after day. And all Evans’ vividly specific descriptions enhance the sense of their reality but it also runs the risk of boring readers by drowning them in the mundane.

Part of me loved how London life was being evoked and memorialised in this way. But I also felt impatient at times because there’s very little plot in this novel other than tracing the small moments of daily life where characters grow increasingly detached from their roles as parents and spouses. Even though I felt a small thrill at recognizing so many locations and aspects of London life, there was no urgency in the narrative. Evans’ writing is so elegant in its wry commentary on her very convincing characters’ situations. She can frame the oppressive nature of a deteriorating relationship in a short simple line: “They lived in two different houses in one small house.” Or she can mordantly describe the sinking feeling an adult can feel listening to her mother chat endlessly about banal things: “The more they talked, the more the world receded, they were sinking, the dungeon was going down deeper, and deeper.” All these succinct observations made the novel a pleasure to read, but every time I put the book down I didn’t feel a pressing need to return to it.

Another difficulty I had with the novel was how it makes it seem like long term relationships are completely incompatible with having children. There’s no question that the difficulty and stress of raising children can put a strain on a couple’s enduring affection for each other. There’s an achingly sad scene in the book where a couple try to recapture a sense of romance by going on a date which becomes horrifically awkward. But I feel there must also be many moments of pleasure to be had in being both a spouse and parent. I don’t have an issue with how Evans’ specific characters might find this duality untenable, but there are no examples of an alternative point of view. This could have been shown in the lives of peripheral characters to give a hint of a different opinion. Evans even blatantly states at one point that “relationships and children simply don’t belong in the same place.” I feel like this perspective is too narrow as I’m sure many people have found fulfilment and an enhanced sense of identity in maintaining both aspects of their life simultaneously.

There’s a lot to admire in this novel and I appreciated what Evans was doing. No doubt many people will be able to relate to the melancholy way its characters muse upon how daily life can become oppressive: “Sometimes, in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low mental skies, never when one is happy.” It’s interesting how her characters project their emotions onto their social and physical environment making life feel absurd and trivial. I just wish she had also captured some more of the beauty and joy that can be had in what’s steady and familiar. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDiana Evans
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif.jpg

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Book Prize, an award which celebrates fiction and non-fiction that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. The intention of the prize is to raise public involvement and debate around the subject of medicine and health. It’s such a unique focus amongst book prizes whose categories are more general. The prize is indelibly linked to the extraordinary institution that is the Wellcome Collection. This is a free museum and library in central London which engages with the public about issues of health and is a rich resource for many. For instance, Jessie Greengrass wrote the bulk of her novel “Sight” (one of my favourite novels from last year) while working and conducting research in its library – something which is very evident in the text from the way it engages with the history of medicine.

So, to help celebrate this prize’s anniversary, I decided to peruse its history of entrants and read a book that was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif is a darkly comic novel that begins with the novel’s titular hero Alice being interviewed for a nursing position at the dilapidated Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi. It’s a chaotic establishment where blood is sold, medicine is pilfered and nurses are regularly molested (in one vividly horrific scene Alice defends herself with a razor blade). Alice implements simple hygienic procedures which improve the health of many patients, but as a medical facility its run more on faith than it is on science. So when an apparent miracle occurs people flock to the establishment in the hope of being magically cured. It’s a struggle for the rational, but Alice’s main dilemma is overcoming the stigma against her lower caste and Christian background. She seeks to rise above her origins, but things go badly awry.

Hanif’s writing brings the vibrancy and humanity of the city and Pakistani society to life as well as its manifold problems. Running parallel with Alice’s story are the shady dealings of the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit that uses strong-arm tactics and is basically a law unto itself. Teddy Butt a bodybuilder (and body waxer) is a freelance thug-for-hire who does odd jobs for them. Alice marries and attaches herself to him in the hope of gaining his protection but when their relationship becomes untenable she finds herself in even more danger. The story shows the absurdities of institutions which are run on reactionary ideas – most poignantly in the hospital’s approach to healthcare both by patients and doctors. The book’s final prologue is a heartrending lament that includes an indictment made by Alice’s father who highlights distinctions between those are deified in our society and those whose memories are besmirched. It’s a compelling and forceful novel.

I’ll be especially interested to follow the prize this year as the chair of judges is author Elif Shafak. A longlist will be announced in February, followed by a shortlist in March and the winner later in the Spring.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMohammed Hanif

One of my highlights from last year’s reading was participating in a Jean Rhys reading week. So when I saw that Waterstones Gower Street is doing a ‘Forgotten Fiction’ reading group where they’ll be discussing Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” as well as Lynne Reid Banks’ seminal book first published in 1960, I jumped at the chance to read this classic novel for the first time. Before I even started reading I felt a big bout of nostalgia as I realized Reid Banks also wrote one of my favourite children’s books “The Indian in the Cupboard.” This imaginative drama takes place in a child’s bedroom where he can bring his toys to life and I connected with it so strongly when I was young. It’s interesting to now read Reid Banks’ gritty realist novel that represents the experience of being a single young woman whose father has thrown her out of their home for being pregnant. The novel incisively portrays the social prejudices the heroine Jane faces and the internalized shame she feels as a consequence, but also how her strength of will helps her endure and establish a new life for herself.

Although Jane works at a decently-paid job, after her father expels her from their house she moves into a seedy and bug-infested boarding house in Fulham. She feels that “In some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” The attic room she takes has an odd L-shape and twines around the room of her neighbour John, a black musician who increasingly becomes a devoted friend. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help wincing at Jane’s descriptions of John who she claims at different times to have an “animal” smell and a “negro odour.” This is symptomatic of a present-day difficulty with this novel. Although Jane’s position of being an unmarried pregnant woman who refuses to get rid of her baby must have been quite a radically liberal stance in her time, the way she describes people of colour and gay people is problematic and cringe-worthy.

Early on in the novel when she was working within an acting troupe she describes her antagonistic relationship with a gay actor who fancies her boyfriend Terry. She and Terry make out in front of this gay man to show him that they are “normal” and that he is not. Later on she visits a curry house and remarks how the Indians who serve her smile “in an enigmatic Eastern way.” It’s interesting thinking how progressive it must have been at the time to portray homosexuals and racial minorities in any way within a novel. However, no one could write such descriptions now without being considered bigoted. But, in a way, I’m glad that Jane’s provincial point of view is so blatant as it highlights her unconscious prejudices and how they contrast so sharply against the prejudice she receives as an unmarried pregnant woman in this time. She’s sympathetic and friendly with the racial and sexual minorities that she meets in the novel, but she was probably totally naïve about the way her attitude denigrated these people. Interestingly she seems more conscious of the effect her ex-boyfriend Terry’s anti-Semitic attitude has on her Jewish neighbour Toby.

None of this detracts from this novel’s moving and well portrayed story. Some of the strongest scenes show how powerless and vulnerable a woman in Jane’s situation was made to feel. She goes to visit a doctor to confirm her suspicion that she’s pregnant and she recounts how he realizes that she’s unmarried and therefore “he looked at me reproachfully. I stared back at him, feeling suddenly angry. I hadn’t come to him to be looked at like that. He wasn’t my father, it was nothing to him. But I couldn’t think of any stinging words to say; I just sat there, feeling angry and humiliated.” The scene devolves into an even more egregious situation. I felt totally outraged that someone in such a perilous situation should be lambasted with such moralistic judgement and shady medical practices in this era before the 1967 Abortion Act in England. Of course, the most biting and cruel scenes are when she receives contempt for accidentally becoming pregnant from her own father and the man she later falls in love.

Jane feels an overwhelming sense of shame when she understands the full extent of the public’s opinion of her: “I was right in the middle of a moment of truth, and it was still and quiet and empty in there, as it is supposed to be in the heart of a tornado.” However, the novel is certainly not all bleak as she also experiences wonderful moments of sympathy and kindness from strangers, a friend and another family member. Nor are doctors all bad once she manages to find a sensible one. It’s encouraging to read a story about someone who can survive and thrive despite the social stigma which has been attached to her – much in the same way as Joyce Carol Oates portrayed in her novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Where Reid Banks’ novel really excels is the complex way she shows how Jane can overcome her own self-loathing about her situation and transform it into a source of strength. I'm looking forward to going to the reading group and considering the parallels and differences between Jean Rhys' writing and Reid Banks'.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

There’s something so irresistible about a story where old people behave badly. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had the right to say exactly what we feel without worrying about future consequences. “The Woman Next Door” focuses on two elderly neighbours Hortensia and Marion who live in a small upscale community in South Africa. Both are professionally successful independent women, but they don’t get along at all and don’t feel the need to pretend to get on. This leads to a lot of amusing confrontations and bitchy banter, especially at the neighbourhood meetings which are more glorified social occasions than gatherings to talk business. However, both these women are experiencing severe personal problems whose difficulties are amplified by their advanced age. On top of this claims are being made upon the land around them as compensation for the slaves of past generations who inhabited this area. They grudgingly become more reliant upon each other to navigate these difficulties, but that doesn’t mean either of them are willing to burry the hatchet.

Omotoso has a skilful way of describing the mindset of elderly life showing how it is not simply a time of accumulated regret but also a time where certain desires still burn just a brightly. Loss is something that both of the women have to deal with perpetually: “time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” Hortensia and Marion are very proud individuals. Their sense of dignity is lost when they are increasingly unable to take care of themselves because of physical or financial problems. To deal with this they have to improvise, strike bargains with each other and strategically manipulate those around them. All the while they churn over memories of their development and the choices they made in their lives which are recounted in passages throughout the novel. 

I also really liked what a unique view of human relationships this novel gives. It lays out how (despite appearances) people can be quite selfish and superficial. Omotoso describes this quite well when recounting Marion’s feelings for some other neighbours called the Van Struikers: “Because she didn’t like them, Marion had made them her friends, attending all their soirees, noticed that behind the money their marriage was a sham and took comfort in this.” It’s cruelly honest how people can quite often take pleasure in the suffering of others not only to bolster their own egos but because it pulls the curtain back on the facades some people put up. This also plays out in how Marion deals with her long-serving housekeeper. In one scene it’s described how she discovers the housekeeper has been buying a better quality toilet paper than Marion herself buys. So she feels the need to buy better toilet paper for herself henceforth. This is not only a fine example of how someone can be ridiculously petty, but also the way in which Marion asserts her superiority as a member of the white upper class.

An interview with author Yewande Omotoso.

A continuous bone of contention between Hortensia and Marion is their racial difference. As a black woman of Caribbean descent who was raised in England and lived for some time in Nigeria, Hortensia is especially attuned to the hypocritical attitudes of certain white people that proclaim they aren’t racist, but their actions say something very different. Marion’s skewed sense of equality is inherited from her previous generation’s prejudices. It’s described how for Marion “there was no one to ask about what was real history and what was not. Her parents weren’t in the business of telling these two kinds of histories apart; they weren’t in the history business at all.” She didn’t have access to a rounded view of the past with its multiplicity of view points. So when she’s suddenly confronted with the truth of what actually took place on the land they inhabit she’s jolted into certain horrifying realizations.

This is a really enjoyable novel which balances a story about two warring neighbours with darker subjects of betrayal, complicated forms of racism and the perilous position of elderly people who have no support network. It’s unfortunate that not all the plot points (such as the petitions for land claims and the story of an illegitimate child) aren’t developed quite as fully as they could have been because the narrative is so weighted down by flashbacks to the women’s life stories. As interesting as these back stories are they pull the reader out of the drama happening in the present. It’s also a shame that we’re not given more about how these professionally successful women achieved the unusual status that they did. And no matter how much Omotoso tries to steer the story away from being a "two bitter old neighbours who are really frenemies" tale it seemed to be just that in the end. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing and interesting novel featuring characters we seldom get to read about.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYewande Omotoso
4 CommentsPost a comment

It’s a bold enterprise to take a novel as renowned and loved as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and recast it in modern day London with Russian and Balkan characters. This is what Vesna Goldsworthy has done with her novel “Gorsky” but this isn’t merely an intellectual exercise. Rather, it’s a clever way of taking Fitzgerald’s critique of a certain milieu of 1920s American society based around decadence, social change and wild aspirations and overlaying it upon modern English society to see what close parallels can be made. Goldsworthy uses the same arrangement of characters to create a fated love story played out amidst the most outrageous excesses of capitalism. In doing so she creates an engaging and fascinating view of London today.

Nikolai or “Nick” works in a dilapidated bookstore in Chelsea, an affluent London neighbourhood that he’s nicknamed ‘Chelski’ because of the influx of millionaire foreigners buying up property within the area. As a well-educated immigrant outsider whose home and family were obliterated by war, he’s found a calm reclusive existence for himself in London where he spends his days reading and catering to the few customers who happen into the shop. But one day he becomes infatuated with a beautiful Russian woman named Natalia Summerscale who shows a keen interest in obscure art books. Delivering her literature to her, he ingratiates himself into Natalia’s affluent home and becomes acquainted with her rich husband Tom. At the same time, he finds cheap rent in a tiny cottage adjoining a Chelsea property that is undergoing a massive overhaul by the mysterious Russian oligarch Roman Gorsky. In the same way that Gatsby uses his supreme wealth to orchestrate ways to capture the heart of Daisy, Gorsky seeks to win Natalia after a lifetime of obsessing over her.

Nikolai observes the love triangle of Natalia, Gorsky and Tom play out to its inevitable fateful end. He is charged by Gorsky to curate a library of the rarest literature in the world for his elaborately-conceived new home/museum. It's like a bookish person's dream job! Subsequently, he's also swept into a world of excessive parties, privately-owned Greek isles and bad-acting high society. But he’s never fooled into thinking that this inconceivably wealthy arena holds the key to happiness. He observes “Everything around me… was harmoniously orchestrated, beautiful to look at, yet the cumulative effect was melancholy, as though some unquenchable thirst lurked at the heart of it all.” Indeed, most everyone he meets seems secretly prone to desperation and loneliness. Even among the upper-classes, a former gold medallist named Gery remarks how “It’s a cruel city. People do all sorts to survive. They deal, they steal. If they are men. If they are women, the sell their bodies.” Later Nikolai remarks that “I had never thought money shielded you from anything.” Gorsky is the most withdrawn and melancholy of them all because for all his billions and however much he’s desired by everyone he meets, he doesn’t have the love of his life.

One of the many rare manuscripts Gorsky acquires is Pushkin's poem of undying love for Anna Kern.

One of the many rare manuscripts Gorsky acquires is Pushkin's poem of undying love for Anna Kern.

One of the best things about this novel is its comic and warmly-satirical physical descriptions of London. Winter is described as “months of slushy semifreddo” and a “dirty duvet of cloud covers the city.” Goldsworthy is also excellent at conveying the social layers of the city with its various ethnic neighbourhoods and how these have changed over time. She observes that “just behind the Serbian church, one of the many indistinguishable Victorian terraces that housed Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, then the Spanish and Portuguese labourers from what were then impoverished Iberian dictatorships, and finally a wave of North Africans escaping Maghrebian politics and the grimness of French satellite towns.” It’s a dynamic portrait of how London is a city that experiences influxes of immigrants escaping particular political and social troubles. But she’s also careful to show the pitfalls and how “There is a cruel freedom about this city, the freedom of an entire world on the make.”

I was cautious about approaching this novel when Simon of Savidge Reads told me about its connection to Fitzgerald. As much as “Gatsby” is lauded as an American classic, it’s not one of my favourite books. However, there is something so vibrant and playful about “Gorsky” which makes this novel very readable. It's an original and compelling story in its own right. It shows how whether you come to London with no opportunities or every opportunity, fulfilment can never be reached through money alone.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment