Review published on May 18, 2016.
What Belongs to You begins with an American teacher entering the public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture looking for sex. There he meets a young hustler called Mitko and so begins a relationship that comes to define his life – and that could also possibly destroy it. As our unnamed narrator tells his story, we are rapidly drawn into the dark dance that these two characters’ conduct around each other – a twisted waltz of desire and eroticism, love and manipulation that examines the ways in which our backgrounds and cultures, private shames and desires can shape the way we are.
It is difficult to believe that this is a debut novel, such is the power of Greenwell’s writing. This is a deeply lyrical book, which manages to render even the basest human actions and feelings with vivid, poetic intensity. This might be a man on his way into a public bathroom to pay a young man for sex but it is written with such richness and such sensual detail that it lends the encounter an almost poetic air. From the descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and Soviet era blokove to the narrator’s evocation of his childhood in suburban America and his first, intense friendship with a local boy, the whole novel is filled with hauntingly beautiful writing that lingers long after you turn the final page.
And it isn’t just the writing that packs a punch. The emotional resonance of the story is remarkable given that the book is less than 200 pages long. Throughout his encounters with Mitko, which change from paid-for erotic encounters into a more complicated mixture of yearning, friendship, dependence and guilt, and his recollections of childhood rejection and a longing to be loved and accepted, the narrator remains a complex enigma, hidden from the reader because he remains hidden from himself. Mitko is also elusive, weaving in and out of the story and wearing many faces, both beautiful and terrible and often both at once. For a reader, it is writing that asks a lot of questions and offers little by way of answers.
As you can probably imagine, this does not make What Belongs To You an ‘easy’ read. Although not a lengthy book, it makes many demands on the reader – rewarding close attention to the subtleties of human interaction via writing that insists on being savoured rather than sped through. Fans of pacy plots and sharp dialogue should look elsewhere, for this is a Merchant Ivory novel rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. Neither is it ‘light’ in any sense of the word. This is, at times, an unremittingly bleak book, which offers little by way of salvation for its characters. It’s not quite A Little Life bleak but, as with Yanagihara’s bestseller, the forces of shame and guilt cast long shadows into the characters’ lives. Take the time to get through this however, and you’ll discover a richly layered novel with an aching, emotional heartbeat that makes What Belongs To You a commanding debut from someone who is sure to become a literary writer to watch out for.
Amy Louise Blaney
What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Picador 978-1-4472-8051-4 hbk Apr 2016
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