Book Review: “The Great Gatenby”, John Marsden

great-gatenby-john-marsden-australian-teenage-fiction
To understand my relationship to The Great Gatenby, you have to be aware that it was a mainstay of my childhood literary-ness. Not necessarily in the sense that it made a profound impact on me, but in the sense that it seemed to somehow always be on the bookshelf when I wanted a quick read and I was constantly picking it up and reading it on the toilet, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or on car journeys. It was just the right sort of length and depth to make this possible. And, true to form, I read it snappily one recent Friday night.

The book follows one Erle Gatenby who starts Year 10 by moving to a well-reputed boarding school. Unfortunately, his punk attitude and free spirit pit him against an authoritarion rabble of teachers, although these doldrums are partly mitigated by both a fledgling romance with one Melanie and his enjoyment of competitive swimming. It’s a very teenage book, one that the teenage Joel Dignam was all too influenced by, so coming back and reading it as what we will flatteringly call a ‘young adult’ was an interesting experience.

Notably, Marsden does an incredible job of writing for teenagers in a teenager’s voice. Erle’s narrative voice is spot on, if not for any teenager, at least for this particular one. The dialogue is realistic, and the experience of being a teenager, the quibbles with teachers, the efforts to navigate social straits, the parties, the homework, all meld together effortlessly. Marsden really has done something quite remarkable with this book (which I never would have appreciated during my earlier readings): he’s telling every teenage reader that they’re not alone, that it’s not just them for whom the system can be bewildering and confronting, that, in fact, the system is meant to be bewildering and confronting, and that pretty much sucks. In Erle, that is, we can each see a bit of ourselves.

Furthermore, this empathy extends to describing Erle’s and Mel’s nascent romance. Again, Marsden pulls this off. This is surprising: I don’t know how a middle-aged man from country Victoria knows more about dating teenagers than I do, and, perhaps, it’s better that I don’t know. The flickerings of interest between Erle and Mel, the communication, the gradual escalation, the perception of others, their own perceptions, are all related with honesty and without embellishment. This naturally supports the overall strength of the narrative, but also makes it even better as a inclusive pat on the shoulder for teens. If the music of Blink182 is anything to go by, dating is teenagers’ raison d’être (yes, I googled that phrase to get the spelling right). So the acceptance and integrity in Marsden’s development of Erle’s narrative voice is, once more, a delight.

The book is also funny.

One day I’ll be 30 and I won’t read this book. It may be a bit too crass, a bit too distant. But then perhaps I’ll be 35 and I’ll read it and it’ll remind me of the wayward days of my youth and afford me a newfound empathy for the plight of my struggling and unfulfilled daughter, Arianna. Maybe I’ll buy her a copy, or, better yet, give one to her for Christmas in place of the Twilight series, which she desperately wanted. I’ll be a good parent that way.

Rating: 4/5

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One Response to “Book Review: “The Great Gatenby”, John Marsden”

  1. I’ve just re-read it aged forty having howled with laughter at it as a teenager in the 80s and it’s lost none of its charm. I hope my daughters enjoy it in time.

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