What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: A tale of obsession and loneliness

Cover imageGarth 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.

17 thoughts on “What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: A tale of obsession and loneliness”

  1. I wasn’t sure but I am leaning toward reading this. It is good to hear the hype is not unjustified. There seem to be some interesting and different gay themed literary novels lately. Although I am gay myself I am most interested in stories that look at LGBT life in other parts of the world, especially where people still have less freedom/safety.

    1. This one might well work for you then. I may be wrong but I suspect Bulgaria isn’t the most comfortable place to be gay, although nothing compared with, say, Zimbabwe. I think the writing would appeal, too.

    1. I know all those qualities are right up your street. I’ll be amazed if you’re disappointed although after the last time I said I’d eat my hat I think I’ll refrain from suggesting that.

  2. “Greenwell’s prose is suffused with a painful loneliness as our narrator unfolds this discomfiting dissection of tortured desire.” This doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it? I think I would like it!
    “Brouhaha” is a great word. 🙂

    1. I do seem to be on a particularly miserable streak in my reading at the moment but happiness just isn’t very interesting! I love that word and, rather like ‘discombobulate’, maybe in danger of over-using it.

  3. I’m glad to hear that the hype is justified. It sounds like a difficult but worthwhile read. That said, I’m not sure it’s for me. I read for entertainment mostly, but I will keep this one on my radar (as bleak as this novel is). Great review.

    1. Thank you. If you sometimes read novels just for the quality of the writing this one’s well worth seeking out. I think hype – particularly of the prolonged variety – can have a pronounced negative effect on expectations. It often makes me turn my back and walk in the opposite direction!

  4. I almost always stay away from books that a big brouhaha is made about as well! The actual book never lives up to the hype. But this sounds like an interesting book. I wonder if/when it will be published in the U.S.?

    1. It’s an interesting psychological study, Melissa, and the writing is superb. Brouhaha is often counterproductive for me, best ignored if possible! I think it may already be out in the States, or at least I’d assumed so as Greenwell’s American

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