If you happened to read my ‘A to Z of Books’ the other week you will know I was about to start a new read, ‘What Belongs to You’ by Garth Greenwell. Now I heard the buzz on the book vine about this novel so as soon as it came into the shop I had a quick scan of the blurb and knew this was something I had to have a look at. I then later found out that Greenwell had been loud in singing his praise of ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara and their names were often being mentioned together by those I know best to pay a lot of attention to when they begin talking about talented writers. All this in consideration there was little then going to stop me getting to stuck in to this book.
The first thing I must impress upon you dear readers is the absolute star quality of the writing in the novel. The prose blew me away with its clarity, not a word wasted and simple yet poetic descriptions of emotion given so beautifully you would suddenly realise you had been holding your breath for a paragraph. There is a scene in which our protagonist, who is an American teacher living in Sofia, is sitting in a medical waiting room and Greenwell takes you there so perfectly, evoking smells, sounds and sights, that you have the dread in the pit of your stomach yourself harking back to times you may have been waiting for test results which a lot hangs on.
Now little would you think this novel has much in common with ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier at first glance but…Greenwell does the cunning move of never naming his narrator (and can I just say du Maurier is a literary heroine of mine so any links are always favourable!) As mentioned above, this American young man has moved over to Sofia to teach and is settled in an apartment in the city. Not currently in a relationship, he decides to go to a well known cruising spot and in making this decision that day hinges the meeting that will set the course for the novel. When in these toilets he meets Mitko, a man there for business and with a beauty so startling to our protagonist you feel he is thrown so out of his senses in a way that hasn’t happened to him before. Mitko has left him wrong footed and off kilter from the start. Emerging from the bathroom stall with him a little later could potentially have been the beginning of the end of this brief encounter, but no, Mitko has cast his spell and over the coming weeks this coupling becomes something of a regular event.
Now our protagonist has been well warned after hearing numerous stories of those who have invited men met in these toilets back to their home, the consequences usually being that of stolen money or property. Despite this he goes ahead and we the reader can only sit back and watch the evenings encounter. What follows is one of my most favourite passages of writing in the whole novel (which is almost a novella but it just *feels* like it packs a hefty novel punch). The hesitation of Mitko is described in detail as he keeps trying to put off the deed in question by distractions such as facebook. He proudly presents a timeline of photos of himself in which we watch a healthy, happy young man slowly disintegrate before our eyes into the thin, battle bruised soul he is now. Once it is made clear that after their encounter he will not be kicked back onto the streets but will be able to stay the night, he settles himself to such a degree of comfort he starts skyping other clients and making plans for his coming week. Our narrator is like a stewing pot of emotions as he goes from anger to sympathy to arousal and then back round again, the night drawing out so that every minute feels like an hour. When I finished this section of the book I felt like putting it down and applauding, writing that sublime really shines when you realise you are reading about a man sitting at a computer and another on a sofa but it has drawn you in as some anticipate only a high speed car chase could. You are in that room, feeling the charge in the air between these two people.
The plot then moves on to show how the relationship shifts over time and acutely observes what it is to have somebody become dependent on you to meet the needs they want met, while otherwise having no real involvement in your life, just how this will effect somebody emotionally.
This is a quiet book in that over the course of the story not a huge amount happens in a conventional plot sense, but actually I found that everything was happening behind each word chosen to convey one mans experience in this amplified period of his life.
Read for the moving story and revel in the glorious prose.
‘What Belongs to You’ by Garth Greenwell £12.99 (Picador)