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Youth by Joseph Conrad, book reviewThis review is a part of book blog event in celebration of 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics. To mark the anniversary Penguin is launching a brand new series: The Mini Moderns – a collection of outstanding short-stories and novellas in convenient, pocket-sized and pocket-money priced editions. Curious Book Fans are contributing with the reviews of Youth by Joseph Conrad and La Grosse Fifi by Jean Rhys. You can read more about the Penguin Mini Moderns and book blogging event here.

When I expressed my interest in receiving one of Penguin’s new Mini Moderns series, published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics, I didn’t specify a particular book to receive. Having recently been considering revisiting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I read at school and hated (it being a school text), it seemed to be a sign that it was Conrad’s Youth: A Narrative which I received from the Mini Moderns collection.

Youth: A Narrative has nothing to do with Africa, but it is another example of Conrad’s work. First published in 1902, it is based on Conrad’s experiences at sea. The scene is set with five men around a table, sharing a drink and reminiscing about their days at sea. One begins to tell a story of his first voyage as a second mate, and so the story begins.

The Mini Moderns series are very small books, containing short stories or novellas, and can accurately be described as pocket size. In this form Youth is only 53 pages long, the kind of story you could read easily in one sitting. Yet despite this, Conrad packs a huge amount into the story. This isn’t an overview, this is a full story of the complexity you would expect to find in a novel. Not only that, but it doesn’t skimp on the detail: the sea and the ship are described in astonishing detail so that you can picture the world this sailor is describing. Conrad’s writing is very evocative, allowing us to see what the narrator is describing, and to understand his emotions during this difficult voyage.

The story itself is surprisingly gripping. I didn’t expect to be gripped when I started, although I was moderately curious to find out if the decrepit ship would ever get started on their voyage to Bangkok (spelt Bankok in the story). Yet I found myself getting caught up in the story, and wondering what on earth could go wrong next. Given the length of Youth: A Narrative, it is indicative of Conrad’s storytelling skills that he wrote in such a way that he fully engaged the author in a very short space of time to keep them gripped through this short work.

Despite my enjoyment of the story, I didn’t entirely engage with Marlow, who is telling this story to his friends many years after it happened. This rang some bells from my school reading of Heart of Darkness – I remember disliking the characters. That said, I had nothing against Marlow, he just didn’t capture my interest like the story did.

I thoroughly enjoyed Youth: A Narrative, and I think I will now have to look into reading some of the other titles Penguin have published as Mini Moderns. Not only that, but it has helped me decide I will definitely reread Heart of Darkness – I enjoyed Conrad’s storytelling, and it is a shame to write off a classic after having been forced to dissect it at school.


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by Joseph Conrad

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