In 1925 F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote his iconic novel, The Great Gatsby. Now, 125 years later Gatsby fans are being gifted a treat of a book. Simply named, Nick is a deeply moving portrait of the years that brought Nick Carraway to Long Island and into Gatsby’s lavishly hedonistic world. This prequel to one of literature’s most treasured books really excited me!
‘Nick is an exemplary novel. Smith delivers a moving, full-bodied depiction of a man who has been knocked loose from his moorings and is trying to claw back into his own life.’
New York Times
what it says on the cover …
Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby’s world, he was at the centre of a very different story – one taking place along the trenches and deep within the tunnels of World War I.
Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed first-hand, Nick delays his return home, hoping to escape the questions he cannot answer about the horrors of war. Instead, he embarks on a transcontinental redemptive journey that takes him from a whirlwind Paris romance – doomed from the very beginning – to the dizzying frenzy of New Orleans, rife with its own flavour of debauchery and violence.
PUBLISHED: 25th February 2021
SHELF: historical fiction | literary fiction | WWI
AUTHOR: Michael Farris Smith
PUBLISHER: No Exit Press
FORMATS: Hardback | Audiobook | Kindle
‘The transformative landscape of the city made it seem more foreign than before and he began to wonder if she had been a figment of his imagination. If his life with her and the life created with her and the days together in this place all existed solely in his mind. Or had she been created by his desire for something safe and true, something given to him by his subconscious to relieve his fears, to settle his nerves, to remind him there was life beyond the butchery, and that one day it would once again be available to him.‘
my review …
Before I get stuck in to my thoughts on this book, I want to wax lyrical (just a little bit) about how much I love the idea of modern authors plucking a character from a literary classic, and creating a past life for them. In the hands of a truly accomplished storyteller, lifelong book-lovers such as myself can be treated to a reunion with characters from some of literature’s most treasured books … and how about the potential for these ‘prequel’ books to introduce new readers to the classics? It’s perfect; this really does excite me!
Nick is the first book – that I’m aware of – to do this. In the book’s foreword, the author writes about his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, and how it developed with each reading in his twenties, thirties and forties. In hindsight, this foreword reads a little like a qualifier, written by the author to reassure his readers that he’s well placed to bring Nick out from behind the scenes and onto centre stage. I couldn’t help feeling his evolving relationship with this iconic novel is reflective of my own with many of the great classics; books so rich in context tend to resonate with us in different ways as our own life experiences change us.
It’s been a long while – too long – since I last read Gatsby, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of Nick in any way, and I think it’s important to stress that this is a book that will be as engaging as a standalone novel as it is in its prequel form.
Set during the First World War and its immediate aftermath, the book follows the life of Nick Carraway – narrator of The Great Gatsby – as a young man who set out from his comfortable, staid American Midwest home in search of a bigger life. We first join Nick in Paris as he prepares to head back to the front line, after seven days’ leave; seven days he’s spent falling in love with Ella. Seen in flashbacks and emotionally charged recollections the reader is invited to view a fragmented portrait of Nick’s war years. For me, these chapters were profoundly moving; the scenes from the frontline were crammed with a rich abundance of inescapable brutality. Through an intriguing, inventive play with fact, fiction and reminiscence we follow Nick’s time in the trenches, in the forests, in the tunnels … and hand-in-hand with Ella in Paris. The disparity between his two existences strikes a discordant tone; thrusting the reader from the romantic streets of Paris into the bloody, muddy horrors of war, and back again. These chapters are rich in thematic resonance, written in with an aura of haunting melancholy, and a sense of detachment that conveys Nick’s psychological trauma.
Unlike the longer chapters in part one of the book – the war chapters – part two is made up of distinctly shorter scenes, but the sense of continuity is not lost. The difference in length is marked, so I feel it must be deliberate. My interpretation is that the author used longer chapters and sometimes lengthy passages to create a sense of trapped suspension for Nick in the book’s first ‘act’.
The noticeable change in part two instils a chaotic, fractured mood, and it’s in these chapters where Nick seeks out another new life, this time in New Orleans. Among the hedonistic streets and bars of Frenchtown, Nick seeks to both lose himself and find himself, rubbing shoulders with prostitutes, gangsters and murderers, and finding a degree of kinship with another deeply troubled veteran. In his impulsive decision not to return home, Nick is adrift in a city with so many parallels to his war – fights, fire, trauma, addiction, and death – and at times it seems he won’t have the fortitude to avoid being irrevocably drawn in. Beneath the bawdy, character-led plot, these chapters are a surprisingly thought-provoking and sensitive study of retribution, recovery and forgiveness.
This novel charts the harrowing transition from grim realism to idealism, and even if I didn’t know the Gatsby years, the final chapter of this book tantalises with a sense of optimism and new beginnings. The open bay with the enigmatic light on the far shore is the perfect metaphor for the bigger life Nick’s been craving since childhood. So perfect was its positioning that it left me itching to pick up my battered copy of Great Gatsby, if not just to see how my new understanding of Nick influences my next encounter with this literary classic.
In writing ‘Nick’ the author has penned a highly original and wonderfully respectful homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel; what a perfect way to mark its 125th anniversary. Like its sequel, Nick is bursting with lavishly vivid scenes, complex characters, and astutely observed subtexts, all unforgettably bound by an emotionally magnetic atmosphere. And let’s not overlook that cover … if ever a design was going challenge a reader’s preconceptions of historic fiction novels, then Nick is the new aspiration.
my rating …
Thank you to No Exit Press for sending me this advance copy of #Nick in return for an honest review.
michael farris smith
Michael Farris Smith is an award-winning writer whose novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, Southern Living, Book Riot, and numerous others, and have been named Indie Next List, Barnes & Noble Discover, and Amazon Best of the Month selections. He has been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize, the Gold Dagger Award in the UK, and the Grand Prix des Lectrices in France, and his essays have appeared with The New York Times, Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, and more. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.
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