Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky first arrived at Savidge Reads HQ last year unsolicited and I have to admit that having heard (on which podcast I cannot remember) that it was a reimagining of The Great Gatsby I promptly gave it to the book swap shelf at work. It is not that I have anything against reimagining’s, retellings or prequels and sequels, it is more that I found the original to be The Quite Alright Didn’t Set My World on Fire Gatsby. However with it being on the Bailey’s longlist, and as part of the Bearded Baileys Book Club, I had to read it and so I braced myself…
As the rich of Russian move into London one particular oligarch, Gorsky, is getting the most talk and the most press because he is a man of not mere millions but billions – well, if the press are to be believed. So it comes to quite a surprise to Nikolai Kimović, or Nick as he likes to be called, finds this very man standing in the bookshop in which he works, in one of the backstreets between Knightsbridge and Chelsea.
We were independent alright. And bookish, too. In spite of the mess, which gave the appearance of frantic activity, I managed to read a couple of titles a day, even on what passed for a busy one. I certainly did not expect to have to deal with ‘big business’, and everything about this man – from the way he stepped out of the vehicle, giving brief instructions to the sharp-suited driver who held the car’s door open for him, to the manner in which he lingered uncertainly among the shelves as I completed a minute transaction and chatted with one of our morning regulars, and the tone in which he finally uttered that if I might – spelled out big business.
Gorsky wants Nick to help him create the perfect library in his new home, which surprisingly happens to be the great house on which Nick’s low rent gate house belongs. So he has a new landlord and a new client all in one. Things take another turn when Nick discovers that Natalia, the woman of his dreams who comes in occasionally for books, seems to have some history with Gorsky and here Nick may once again be of some service.
If you have read The Great Gatsby, and I don’t think there are many people who haven’t, then you will know roughly what the plot that unfolds from here is. I say roughly because Goldsworthy does through in some twists and turns here and there as this is no straightforward retelling as I mentioned before. What you would be expecting is the wondrous world of London’s super rich echelons which Goldsworthy draws from the start and right up to the end. Indeed it was this that kept me reading on, along with all the book talk that Nick throws in along the way.
What then took me even further into the novel was something I wasn’t expecting at all, as Goldsworthy uses the reimagining of Gatsby to tell a much wider story, one which will have your thoughts fully provoked…
‘You can’t defeat them unless they wish to be defeated. They are like beasts. They will die in their millions without needing the consolations of an afterlife. You’ll never find such men and women anywhere else. Forget about the Muslims. They blow themselves up in the hope of seventy-two cherries to pop. The Russians are scarier. They fight hoping for nothing. Do you know that Natalia is from Stalingrad? Volgograd as it was called at the time she was born. Daddy was a Stalingrad rat, fifteen in 1945. It takes a special kind of zest to survive all that and then procreate so unstoppably. He had five children in a country in which most people stop at two. And not even religious. Unless you count Communism…’
As Gorsky unfolds Goldsworthy uses this famous plot of the young and rich, and the older rich and corrupt, to look at several things. The first is the situation with London now, which is becoming a city that is out pricing itself, and how the very rich are buying up masses of buildings just to visit, or worse still (considering the cry for affordable housing, which Nick himself lives in, is so high) simply leaving empty. It then looks, sometimes rather crudely through the eyes of Summerscale as quoted above (Natalia’s rich British husband, who could well be a take on Nigel Farage head of the awful political party UKIP), at the situation with the UK – and in some instances the world – with Russia, which I find as fascinating as I do petrifying. This then also leads to how the UK sees itself and is perceived by the rest of Europe. This is of course particularly topical at the moment with the European referendum coming up (I want to stay in, just saying) in the next few weeks. Nick is the perfect set of eyes for this as being a Serbian migrant he sees it all both from outside the world of the rich and as someone who is the focus of much debate at the moment with migration being a very hot topic.
I thought it was all of this that made Gorsky really stand out to me. Interestingly this is some ways does come at a slight cost. Goldsworthy is wonderful at constructing scenes, buildings and atmospheres, yet there is a slight struggle going on with the characters. As the main characters all have a certain plot to follow in many ways, it slightly constricts them. Most of the time, with many of the characters Goldsworthy works wonders, occasionally (particularly with Natalia) they feel slightly less like characters and more like chess pieces being forced to move in a certain pattern or direction. This is a minor qualm though when the discussions the book creates are so strong and the scenes in which they are set so luscious and so detailed.
All in all I really enjoyed Gorsky and read it in a couple of sittings. It entertained me and gave me much food for thought in a very subtle and subconscious way, which I really liked. I will have to go off and discover what else Vesna Goldsworthy has written.
Update: Gorsky is one of a selection of the longlisted Baileys Women’s Prize books that I am giving away worldwide here.