Since visiting America twice in as many years (I am feeling American trips might have to become an annual thing) I have been intrigued by the books that they have over there that we don’t, yet, in Britain. I have recently got quite the habit for ordering these from overseas. One such book I was incredibly tempted by was What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell after seeing it discussed a lot over the water, particularly by Hanya Yanagihara, in January – it seems Camilla at Picador must be psychic for the UK proof arrived at just about that time and so I devoured it, in a single sitting, as I was completely spellbound by it…
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely.
I am a huge fan of characters who remain enigmas whilst telling their stories and with What Belongs To You Garth Greenwell has brought us not one but two characters who both remain mysterious yet compelling throughout his debut novel, which is in many ways ode to obsession. As the novel opens we follow our unnamed narrator, a middle aged American teacher now living in Bulgaria, as he goes cruising for sex in the toilets underneath the National Palace of Culture. It is here that he meets Mitko, a young rent boy who very quickly, through an act of temptation and then rejection, becomes like a drug for our protagonist. We then follow the two characters as their relationship, which twists, turns and redefines itself, develops and watch how it affects both men.
There is so much that is brilliant about this unflinching novel of lust, loneliness and desperation. Greenwell gives What Belongs To You a compelling thriller like feel as plays both with us and our perceptions making us constantly question if this is love, obsession, lust or something more sinister. What becomes all the more intriguing is that as we read on, without giving away any spoilers, Greenwell flips the notion of who is the predator and who is the prey, is it the older man or the younger and why?
If this study of obsession and lust wasn’t enough there is also much more going on in the background behind what is in many ways a two man show, affair seemed too pun filled a term. There are also the stories of these two men and why they ended up in that restroom. The novel is set into three sections the first spiralling from that first meeting with Mitko and how sexual obsession and power begins. The second section then takes a very different turn as our protagonist gets a letter from home that takes him back to his youth and the relationship he has had with his family particularly with his father.
My father spoke in a different tone now, almost with a different voice, the voice of his own childhood, I thought, thick with the dirt he usually tried to conceal. So you like little boys, that voice said, the voice almost of instinct, the voice of the look he had given me once and of what had once fouled the air. As young as I was, I knew what he said was absurd, I was myself a little boy, what could he be accusing me of, though now I think it was his only understanding of what I could be, the person I was was lost in it. But it didn’t matter that it was absurd, I was already crying, I was a mess of tears, and when my mother started to come toward me I motioned her away, turning my back on her. I was ashamed of my tears, I would hardly breathe, and it was all I could do to say to him But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say.
This section of the book proves incredibly emotive, it is also a fascinating portrayal and indeed insight into some of the thoughts, experiences and horrors that gay men often (not always, but often) go through at some point in their life. It is a time of judgement, rejection, fear, lack of hope and being seen as something other, something dangerous to be feared. No one likes to be different, or maybe I should say no one likes the repercussions of being different, yet when you are you have no choice but to go through whatever that difference throws at you. To steal from the title you have to own ‘what belongs to you’ though it isn’t always easy and it shapes you, as we see it does through our unnamed narrators eyes. You wonder if this is the reason he has left his life in America behind and start to look at how it forms his relationships in his present.
The same can be said for Mitko who returns, literally with a knock on the door on a random night, several years later, our narrator still under some kind of sexual spell and vice versa, though in this section we see it isn’t just the sexual power and side Mitko wants, there is more, both good and bad. For fear of spoilers, again, I will say no more other than that here is where Bulgaria’s history comes into play as we look at how it is not just a home but also class, chance, looks and money all have a bearing on what can make a god and what can also destroy one.
I was shocked by the difference between their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me; not only was his tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair full and light brown, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in a class at the prestigious school where I teach. It was hardly possible that they could be the same person, this preposterous teenager and the man beside me, or that so short a time could have made such a difference, and I found myself looking repeatedly at the screen and then at Mitko, wondering which face was the truer face, and how it had been lost or gained.
The set up of the book and its parts, which feel like acts on a stage, as well as Mitko’s story that made me wonder if Greenwell meant for this to me a modern Greek tragedy, only set in Bulgaria. Whatever the case it shows how Greenwell brings in so many brilliant tropes of literature; for there is a thriller like quality alongside a poetic sensibility too, all entwining to create something that feels unlike anything that you have read before. I also loved how Greenwell plays with expectations; making the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly, making sex completely unsexy and then making moments you wouldn’t expect seemingly drip with desire. You wouldn’t think you could describe an opening scene set in an underground toilet as evocative and sensual but with Garth’s prose it is just that. Add to this the compelling lead characters and their stories, underlying tensions and atmospheres and you have a heady concoction.
As you might have guessed I could rave to you all about Garth Greenwell’s debut novel for quite some time. What Belongs To You is concentrated brilliance, a short novel that packs an emotive and thought provoking punch. I urge you all to read it, I think it will prove to be one of many readers stand out books of the year, it will certainly be one of mine.
If you would like to hear more about the novel from the author, as well as discussion on unreliable narrators, queer literature and much, much more do hear over to the latest episode of You Wrote The Book where Garth kindly joins me in conversation, it’ll make you want to read the book if you haven’t or love it all the more if you have, even if I do say so myself. Who else has read What Belongs to You and what did you make of it?