Garth Greenwell (2016) What Belongs to You Picador; ISBN 978-1-4472-8051-4; 194 pp.
This three-part novel is set in Bulgaria, where the narrator, an American, is teaching English. There would appear to be a strong autobiographical flavour to the story. In the first part, the narrator meets a young Bulgarian man named Mitko while looking for paid sex in the toilets of the National Palace of Culture (where else?). Mitko exudes a mix of physical magnetism, sexual excitement and danger, a combination that the narrator finds very attractive. However, trying to find true love with a hustler rarely leads to a happy ending and in this case Mitko’s physical deterioration (a mix of drugs, alcohol and violence? We are never completely sure) and his lying about money lead to the inevitable separation.
The second part of the novel is a forty-one page stream of consciousness paragraph where the narrator learns his estranged father is dying, raising memories of the narrator's relationships with his parents. His father rejected and expelled him from home because the son was attracted to other males. While thinking back on this period of his life, the narrator wanders around an unfamiliar area of Sofia, becoming increasingly disoriented, both physically and mentally. There is no resolution but the memories go some way to explaining the narrator’s behaviour in the unfamiliar culture where he has chosen to live in exile.
The final and longest section of the novel finds Mitko and the narrator reunited, not for any resumption of the relationship but because they have both ended up with syphilis (as has the narrator’s new boyfriend in Portugal). The description of the narrator's visit to the state-run clinic is one of the better parts of the book in that it captures the atmosphere of post-Soviet public services in all their loveable and tawdry decay. Mitko and the narrator eventually part ways, but we sense that Mitko, the poor local with few skills or prospects, is on the road to physical ruin, while the narrator, still teaching English but with the ability to return to the United States whenever he wants, remains resolute in refusing to confront his future.
What Belongs to You is Greenwell’s first novel, though he published a prize-winning novella in 2011. The book is beautifully written and often reflects Greenwell’s other vocation as a poet. Neither the narrator nor Mitko are likeable characters and at times I was annoyed by their sad and pointless behaviour, but the strength of the writing kept me reading and left me feeling rewarded at the end.
When someone lives in a foreign culture they never fully understand all the norms and nuances, so they are prone to making errors of judgement and to misunderstanding local people and their motives and needs. Living abroad is often an escape, but the baggage of the past can never be fully left behind. The narrator struggles with these burdens, but does so from a position of privilege and we sense he will be all right in the end. But Mitko, with fewer and fewer resources available to him, and no prospect of meaningful affection, will be destroyed by his personal demons. It’s a sad, cruel and messy world and this lyrical and compelling story captures a slice of it in beautiful detail.