Book Review: What Belongs To You, by Garth Greenwell

Book Reviews

Some books, you actively seek out. Others find you. Some you read on recommendation—just hearing the title, and the way someone says it can be enough. A single adjective. Hell, sometimes even an Amazon algorithm turns out something special.

How I came by this book, I really can’t recall. It just appeared by my bedside one evening. But as soon as I picked it up, I knew that it was one I wouldn’t put down until the very last page. It just had that feel, you know?

What Belongs To You is Garth Greenwell’s first novel—although it contains a revised version of an earlier novella, which was published in 2011. It’s the story of a gay American man living in Sofia, and of his obsession with a young hustler named Mitko. The unnamed narrator meets Mitko in a public bathroom, and, instantly struck by his confidence and carefree attitude, pays him for sex. This marks the beginning of an uneasy and occasionally dangerous-seeming relationship, the boundaries of which are not always clear to either party…

“But warning, in places like the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part and parcel of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.”

 

Greenwell’s narrator explores other relationships over the course of this book, including, significantly, the one with his father, but Mitko—alluring, enigmatic, and tragic figure that he is—is the focal point throughout, and, ultimately, the character with whom readers will sympathise most deeply.

That said, What Belongs To You won’t be for everyone—and not just because of the story, or the subject matter. The way it’s written, and the way it’s structured—in three, chapter-free parts—will turn off as many readers as it entices. But like all great works of art—of fiction, in particular—this is a map of its creator’s heart. Greenwell’s narrative takes us from the cold, poverty-worn streets of the Bulgarian capital, to the blighted beauty of the coastal resort town of Varna, all the way back to his own childhood in America, and the roots of his feelings of shame and displacement. There is also an undeniably poetic quality to Greenwell’s prose, which is both calming and unsettling for the level of detail and intimacy it imparts.

Personally, I loved this book. For almost three weeks, it was a constant companion—I took it everywhere I went, and luxuriated in the language contained within its pages. By the time I reached the final page, I felt enriched by the experience, but also bereft for the fact that it was all over.

And, yes. I had to look up the word ‘coterminous’.