There are some books that seem so hard to describe I occasionally slam my laptop shut and simply think ‘oh why bother?’ Within this select group of books there will be ones however that you keep heading back to, in some kind of self torturous act, because they are books that you think need to read by more people and so need to be talked about. Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief is one such book as I am rather worried it won’t reach all the readers it should. True, I can’t go and force you to buy it or borrow it from the library; however I can strongly urge you to do so. Why then, when I think you should all read it, has it been so hard to write about, because in a way Dear Thief is one of those quiet and clever books that is about everything and nothing all at once.
Vintage Books, 2015, paperback*, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
On the whole I do not think of you anymore. So it was strange when you came into my mind like that, standing over my bed with your spine stacked tall like a wonder of the world and with thighs like someone who hasn’t eaten for a year, hovering as if you wanted something.
Over the space of Boxing Day 2001 to June 2002 our unnamed narrator writes a letter to her estranged best friend of many years, Nina. We soon learn that Nina, who could be alive or dead, and our narrator had one of those friendships we all encounter from time to time where the love is so powerful for each other that sometimes it can verge on too intense and slightly dangerous. As we soon learn the friendship with Nina, or Butterfly as our narrators’ son once gave her the nickname, did indeed go too far and the reader guesses why pretty early on.
Some of you might now be pondering that if there is no mystery left to uncover why on earth would you read on? Or indeed you might be asking if the book has some kind of twist, as I have noticed all the covers give it a slightly Gone Girl look, and in truth there isn’t one. “So why would I want to read this?” I hear you cry. Well, the writing, remember that crazy thing called prose? For this is one of those books that is all about the writing; the nuances of the prose, the complexities of the characters and the sheer power and atmosphere that words can create. It is a bit of a cliché to say that a book can be haunting, yet that is what this book has done to me since I finished reading it especially the more distance I have had from it. Every so often I remember a moment or a sentence and get a little shudder. I mean with sentences like ‘What remains when old age comes, when decay begins, when the body falls?’ how can you not get chills down your spine.
It is hard for any author whatever their calibre to keep a novel sustained when it is created in the form of a letter. However I think Harvey does this expertly. Yes, there were a couple of times when I felt like the book needed a little edit (I know, hark at me) or an odd occasion were the book meandered yet I put the latter down to it being the thought processes of our unnamed narrator as she looks back over a rather difficult and dark time in her life, now in another equally bleak one. If you are now thinking that Dear Thief sounds awfully depressing, it isn’t, honest. Harvey seems to know just when things are getting too bleak and either injects a salacious or highly eroticised moment (there is something obsessive and sexual about the narrative I still can’t put my finger on, as it were) or a moment of dark humour – or what I found funny at least.
Sometimes I imagine, out of sheer playfulness, that I am writing this as a kind of defence for having murdered and buried you under the patio. It turns out I am not at my desk in central London but in a cell awaiting trial without bail, because whoever bought the cottage in Morda decided to dog foundations for an extension to the kitchen, which was admittedly always too small, and the digger turned up bones and teeth and a silver cobra, which they believe would have been worn on a woman’s upper arm, some small hooped earrings and some scraps of undecomposed leather and a zip from a pair of winter boots.
People in the village mutter: How could she have done it? Which leads me to think: How did I do it? Suffocation is the kindest way, especially if you were in one of your stupors; strangulation unlikely since you would not have let me; knifing or bludgeoning impossible because you are, after all, a friend, one held dearly and much loved, and I am not a monster.
It was with our unnamed narrator that I felt the wonder of Harvey’s writing, whose debut The Wilderness I was a huge fan of when it came out, really culminates. I ruddy love an unreliable narrator and here we have one in full flow. As Dear Thief carries on the author of the letter often back tracks, questions what she has just written, makes things up, and fills in the blanks of her memory etc, all to create her own truth. This is where the nuances and the subtlety of Harvey’s work really comes to the fore and where a reader who likes trying to work out truth and lies, and where the lines of love and hate blur, can have a field day. I might have liked a bit more rage on occasion yet, and I feel I need a cup of tea (maybe some cake) with Samantha Harvey to discuss this in more detail, I felt the often clinical and cold way in which the letter is written comes in part from the ‘therapy’ of writing this all down, from self preservation during the methodical picking of old scars and also from her recent grief that seems to start the whole exercise off? That’s what I thought, but as I said you can never quite work this woman out no matter how much time you spend in her head; which with my taste in books, proved fascinating.
More than this, I am aware I haven’t been completely truthful and I wonder why? How can it be that we begin something wholeheartedly and slip, so quickly, into guarded omissions and liberties with the truth? Under the circumstances the goodness of human nature is very quick to buckle, don’t you think? But then, of course you agree, and you hardly need me to point it out.
So as I said at the beginning, Dear Thief is quite a tricky book to write about and also quite a difficult one to instantly process. That is the very point of it though. It is a book that needs to linger in your mind, as you linger in the narrators, and cogitate it all over time. It is often easy to forget there are books out there that don’t need huge bangs, pops and wallops to show you the power of great writing and a good yarn. Thank goodness then for Samantha Harvey and a book like Dear Thief, I look forward to her next.
Who else has read Dear Thief and what did you make of it? Have you read The Wilderness, if not you must instantly or maybe read my review and see what you think first. I have realised I haven’t read Samantha’s second novel All is Song, possibly because my mother pilfered it as she is a huge fan I must rectify that have any of you read it?
*I did have the hardback as this was one of the books we shortlisted, and discussed fiercely, for Fiction Uncovered this year – however my mother nabbed it, so the arrival of the paperback was the perfect timely reminder to review it.