Garth Greenwell’s debut is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of brouhaha long before it was published. As regular readers may have noticed that kind of thing tends to bring out the cynic in me but several of the names praising it to the skies are the kind of people who know what they’re talking about – Edmund White and Claire Messud, for instance. Couched in elegant prose, it’s a story of sexual obsession and loneliness in which a teacher at the American School in Sofia finds himself in thrall to Mitko, the beautiful young man he encounters when cruising for sex.
When our unnamed narrator meets Mitko in the toilets of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture he finds himself entranced with Mitko’s casual grace, gripped by a desire he finds impossible to shrug off. It’s the beginning of a relationship which slips and slides between a contract as the narrator terms it and a friendship as Mitko calls it. Unable to resist Mitko, the narrator invites him into his home, watching him as he skypes his other ‘friends’, recognising his veiled requests for money, his calculating manipulations, but powerless to turn him away. In turn, Mitko invites the narrator to his home town, disarmingly proud of its beauty and his standing in it. Mitko begins regularly turning up at the narrator’s apartment, slowly but surely slipping into poverty, homelessness and drunkenness. Sometimes he disappears for months, then two years after what the narrator believes to have been their final meeting he appears again. This will not be the last time our narrator sees Mitko but the spell has been broken. Interwoven into the narrative are memories of the American’s childhood, stories of his father and his sisters which draw the reader into a fuller understanding of his life.
What Belongs to You is a slim novel but it’s intensity is such that it’s best read in short bursts rather than swallowed whole. Greenwell’s prose is suffused with a painful loneliness as our narrator unfolds this discomfiting dissection of tortured desire. The episodes from his childhood serve to accentuate and explain his feelings of exclusion; his attempts to build a life in Bulgaria seem strained, a last ditch attempt at adulthood. Mitko’s character is carefully drawn – Greenwell neatly avoids caricature presenting him as gracious and charming, his obvious yet artless calculation explained by his poverty. The consciously chosen grey understatement of the narrator’s life contrasts starkly with Mitko’s rackety vividness. Greenwell’s writing is often striking: the narrator’s desire runs ’alongside my life like a snapping dog’; a colleague is ‘my friend or almost friend’ conveying the tenuous nature of his life in Bulgaria. It’s a difficult read, bleak at times and often uncomfortable, but all that brouhaha turns out to be justified after all.