Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review Contest: The Great Gatsby (Reviewed by Chew Phye Ken)

The Great Gatsby was a book I had read about many years ago, and of all places, I chanced upon it in a comic! At the time, all I knew was that the story was set in the roaring 1920s, a period in American history that had since captured my proverbial imagination: a time littered with speakeasies, Prohibition, the Charleston and men and women dressed in trench coats with fedora-like hats making their way through life in a ‘black and white’ world; the elements that become the modern day films noir.

The author is F. Scott Fitzgerald who most is known for his novels and short stories from the bygone ‘Jazz Age’. The book itself, the subject of my review, was and still is considered to be the finest work to spring from Fitzgerald’s fertile imagination and when published, was applauded with glittering reviews. That was way back then in 1925. Before I started poring through it, images of mysteries, detectives and ‘dames’ flooded my mind but what leapt from its pages took me by surprise; a suburban drama of life and long lost love viewed through the eyes of one Nick Carraway. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed at first, expecting a Hollywood-esque mystery but I soon learnt that this was one of those books that slowly grew on you and by the end it will leave you wishing for more.

The book is written mostly in a first person narrative, a journal of sorts, a world view and character study by Nick. The writing style itself is fluid and coherent and the story progresses at a good pace. Most readers of classic literature should not find any trouble with the language used (as compared to, say, Austen’s period pieces) although this reviewer did stumble upon some words that were beyond his ken. One should keep a good dictionary handy.

As I advanced though the pages, unravelling the layers of the story onion-like, every now and then, I felt as if I was walking in Nick’s shoes, interacting with the characters and even Gatsby himself! The grand parties, the lights, the scent of the warm New York summer breeze were at times, more real than the book I held. I could see the vintage cars, the huge billboards and even the colossal manor in which the titular character lived.

Speaking of characters, allow me to introduce some of the main cast: firstly, Nick Carraway, before whose eyes the account unfolds; a 30 year old bachelor, among one of the common working class in New York who just happens to live next door to the ‘The Great Gatsby’ in ‘West Egg’ (which is not as classy as ‘East Egg’, New York, so we are told). As far as adventures and drama in the story go, he does not participate in them so much as he does observe them around him. Honest and predictable, it is his person that lends stability to the hotchpotch of people that make up his world. He lives near two family members, his second cousin and her husband, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the former a lovely young woman who seems to be the epitome of a stay at home wife of a rich man, na├»ve and long suffering and the latter, her strapping and adulterous husband, whose extramarital life takes a sudden turn for the worst. Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s and romantic interest of Nick proves to be a good counterbalance to Nick’s predictability, appearing all at once haughty, street wise, intelligent and vulnerable. There are a few more intermittent supporting characters that help to move the story along, including the colourful Myrtle Wilson and her eerily placid husband, George, and Meyer Wolfshiem, a mysterious associate of Gatsby. Finally we have the protagonist himself, Mr Jay Gatsby; the swinging bachelor who is wildly rich and immensely popular, but achingly empty, with the only person capable of filling that void beyond his reaches. There is so much more than meets the eye in Gatsby: his remarkable past and sincere longings, and this makes his character one that some could identify with; his story being one of pathos.

At its very heart, it is a tale of lost and renewed love, friendship, loyalty and perseverance. It teaches us the value of determination and the worth of a good friend but also opens our eyes to the hopelessness of relentlessly pursuing missed and forgone opportunities and forces the reader to question how far they would go to reclaim something that had since been given up.

The Great Gatsby admittedly, is not for everyone. If you are seeking swashbuckling adventure, passionate and torrid romance or even a spine chilling mystery, look elsewhere. What Gatsby does offer however is solid story-telling in a modern drama setting and rich characters, all served up with a sober ending.

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