By: Garth Greenwell
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 19, 2016)
Number of Pages: 208
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
What Belongs to You begins with an unsatisfactory encounter between the narrator and a male prostitute. The environment, a public bathroom in Bulgaria, is sordid and more than a little dangerous, the prostitute, an impoverished young man named Mitko, has an unpleasant friend with him, and the sex itself, well, that’s described as a “betrayal” for a reason. And yet, despite the reality of the situation, it is almost impossible not to be moved by the sweet hopefulness of the language.
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 of 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.
Even after Mitko leaves,
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater
from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure
wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we
had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in
words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to
become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my
stained knees and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy,
to make of him what I would.
It is a beautifully crafted opening scene setting the tone for a novel in which love is sought under impossible conditions and described with unflinching honesty.
As the novel progresses, Greenwell makes little use of the usual methods for drawing a reader in and creating a sense of immediacy. We don’t learn about Bulgaria; we never meet the speaker’s students; we’re aware of the weather, but don’t get much scene-setting otherwise. Not even the sex scenes are given much prominence. Instead, we’re drawn into a richly imagined exploration of some of the most primal and universal experiences: the relationship between parents and children, the first experiences of being truly alone, fear of physical illness and harm, the limits of empathy.
Greenwell does this through childhood memories, through observing the small moments of people around him, and through his ongoing attempts first to form a relationship with Mitko and then to end one as his friend becomes increasingly troubled. Despite the deliberately imposed limitations to storytelling, the book itself never feels limited or small. It is instead expansive, urgent in its sense of longing and desire. What belongs to us is so much less than we try to have, yet we never stop wanting more closeness, more connection even with those we know will betray us. Even in the end, as Mitko leaves forever, there’s this final attempt at empathy.
Suddenly I was enraged for him, I felt the anger I was sure he must feel
that futile anger like a dry grinding of gears. But from a distance Mitko
didn’t seem to feel anything at all; these were only my own thoughts, I knew,
they brought me no nearer him, this man I had in some sense loved and who
had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.
What Belongs to You is a remarkably powerful debut novel. I’m very much looking forward the books that will follow it.