When an author whose work I admire provides blurb for a book, I do tend to at least check it out. But when that author is Hanya Yanagihara, who wrote emotional rollercoaster ‘A Little Life’ (a book that had me in bits for most of last summer, see here), I really sit up and take notice. So when Hanya described Garth Greenwell’s debut novel ‘What Belongs To You’ as “a searching and compassionate meditation on the slipperiness of desire, the impossibility of salvation, and the forces of shame, guilt, and yearning that often accompany love”, I knew I wanted to read this book. And when Simon Savidge then raved about the novel on both his blog and in his You Wrote the Book podcast, it went straight to the top of my TBR. And, sure enough, it did not disappoint.
‘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. Take, for example, the beginning of the narrator’s first encounter with Mitko in the public bathrooms under the National Palace of Culture:
“Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out from them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city burst warm still in one’s mouth. I was surprised to hear someone talking so freely in a place where, by unstated code, voices seldom rose above a whisper.”
This is 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. And the whole novel is like this – 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. It is hauntingly beautiful writing that lingers long after you turn the final page.
And it isn’t just the writing that packs a punch. It is remarkable that the novel is less than 200 pages given the emotional resonance of the story, which examines the nature of love and lust, of desire and its consequences. 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. What is love and what is desire? Who is the predator and who the prey? Can we ever really know another unless we know our own selves?
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 not 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.
My thanks go to NewBooks Magazine and to the publishers, Picador, for providing an advanced copy of this book in return for an honest and unbiased review. An edited version of this review may appear on the Nudge website and in NewBooks Magazine. ‘What Belongs to You’ by Garth Greenwell is available now in hardback and e-book from all good bookshops and retailers.