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Tuesday, 20 February 2018

What Belongs To You, Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s debut novel is told to use by its unnamed protagonist, an American teaching in a school in Sofia, Bulgaria. He meets a male prostitute, Mitko, and becomes somewhat obsessed by their relationship. The first section, initially published as a novella, tells of their encounters and the increasing intensity of the narrator’s feelings. The second section focuses on the narrator’s upbringing and difficult relationship with his family, and the third brings us to two years after the last described scene with Mitko. We see the narrator vulnerable and conflicted, we gain a sense of how his sense of self was formed and the shame he feels in desire, and in the final section we are shown how far he has come, or perhaps how little has changed.

His relationship with Mitko is an interesting one, there is a blurring of the lines and Mitko seems to want to make him believe that they are close friends. He also spends a significant amount of time speaking with other male clients and arranging to see them when he has agreed to spend the night with the narrator. Mitko expects more than is offered, ordering too much food and buying expensive bottles of alcohol when he is not the one paying. The narrator lets him do these things but it is never entirely clear whether this is out of genuine concern or guilt. There’s also a sense of fear that permeates their relationship and could contribute to his pliability.

The narrator is determined to recall events accurately, but he finds Mitko’s behaviour confusing and so cannot shed much light on his motives. There’s also the fact that he is not fluent in Bulgarian, often reporting that he hadn’t entirely understood what was being said. The fact that he is recalling events years after they happened also contributes to the idea that he may not be an entirely reliable narrator. His preoccupation with intimacy is clear however, whether from his descriptions of rejection and shame in his youth, or watching children’s intimacy with parents and acknowledging that in a few years' time those same actions would be deemed inappropriate.

A short, powerful novel that explores the lasting impact of childhood impressions and the complex task of attaining genuine intimacy in adulthood.

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