Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, “What Belongs to You,” is exquisite.
Greenwell, who resides in Iowa City and earned his MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last year, has penned a story of frustrated longing and unconventional friendship rendered in a beautiful prose style that owes much to his background as a poet (see related interview).
The book’s narrator, an American living and teaching in Bulgaria, recounts his relationship with Mitko, a man who, on their first encounter, he pays for sex. Their relationship is soon complicated, and the narrator struggles to untangle the transactional aspects from the emotion and desire he feels.
The book’s first and third section focus on the relationship, and they bookend a bravura middle portion in which the narrator reflects on his childhood and adolescence after learning his father — from whom he has long been estranged — is dying. The section is rendered as a single paragraph, pulling the reader through the narrator’s memories and experiences, which have, inevitably, shaped the person he has become.
“What Belongs to You,” is a novel of consciousness, which is to say the thoughts and feelings of its protagonist are at least as central to the narrative as any particular incidents. And while it seems clear the narrator may be less than fully forthcoming and his thoughts often are muddled (but also occasionally illuminated) by his somewhat tenuous understanding of Bulgarian, it is also true that he frequently offers an insight both crystalline and arresting.
Here, for example, he reflects on being tested for AIDS after a period of recklessness: “… (As) the woman read me the results. … I felt not relief, exactly, but disappointment, or something so bewilderingly mixed I still have no good name for it. Maybe it was just that I wanted the world to have a meaning, and that the meaning I wanted it to have was chastisement.”
It would be difficult to overstate what Greenwell has accomplished in “What Belongs to You.” This beautiful, affecting novel will long linger with readers.