Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: "What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell

Usually by the end of the year, I am very worn out from completing my reading goals, and am sometimes a little too harsh with the last few books I read for the year. But not this year, because Garth Greenwell’s sumptuous debut novel What Belongs to You, while I don’t think it will top my year-end list, it certainly will be in my top five. With a scant 191 pages, all of which are packed to the brim with beautiful, razor-sharp prose, Greenwell packs enough pathos, complexity and earthly wonder for books twice maybe three times it size. No matter your sexual orientation, you will find connections in this book to your own feelings, feelings much like the one had by the smart, if malleable unnamed narrator of the story. I do fear that much like this year’s film Moonlight, this book’s greater, more universal qualities will be buried under its more immediate social and political aspects, which I’d argue, are not in this book, but I digress. The book is short, and is split up into three different sections, the first of which was published previously as a stand-alone novella. It begins on a warm autumn day in Bulgaria when our narrator, a teacher from America, meets Mtiko, a fresh 20[-year old hustler, in a public bathroom underneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, and pays him to give oral sex. Mitko stops the narrator before he can climax, takes his money and leaves. The meeting is a tawdry affair, accented by the few friends Mitko has around him brooding just outside the bathroom stall. We know it as readers, but the narrator, who is not used to such affection and seems conditioned toward vulgar masochism, refuses to see it as such and becomes enamored with this young man. He visits him many other times, and convinces himself that there is something real between them. Mitko predictably inserts himself into the narrator’s life and begins using: he borrows money from him to use the train and when he stays over at the narrator’s apartment, he uses his computer to Skype with other clients. After a stay at a resort, where an argument about Mitko masturbating finally reveals the true roots of their relationship, and he throws Mitko out. The second section, centered around the narrator’s past life, we learn about his sexual history, as well as that of his father and younger sister. I won’t reveal the details of this section, since one scene is, I think, the key to the heart of this book, but it the scene is callous and heartbreaking, and you can see how it mirrors the actions or inaction of our narrator in the face of his emotional abuse. The final section, where we see Mitko reenter the narrator’s life with news that he has an STD and most likely gave it to him, caps off the story and brings everything full circle, as we, and thankfully the narrator, see just how large and impassable the divide is between what we desire and what attainable for us. Filled to the brim with memorable scenes and exchanges, like the tiny conversation the narrator has with the hotel manager, which pretty much sums everything up, to an extended scene on a train, where the narrator and his mother watch a misbehaving child, this is a rich, passionate book that slowly draws you in and leaves you aching.

Rating: 5/5

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