Skip to main content

What Belongs to You - Garth Greenwell




Over the course of that wonderful time in year when one season transitions into the next, I picked up John Williams' 'Stoner', a rediscovered masterpiece exploring the life and sadness of the central character across a mundanely painted image of Midwestern America. I longed for Stoner to reach some form of formidable happiness and found myself fully invested in the tale Williams wove. Fast forward two months and I find myself revisiting the same feelings in Garth Greenwell's truly astonishing debut, 'What Belongs to You'. 

Set in central Bulgaria, the novel opens, rather abruptly, with the narrator (of which his name is never revealed) visiting a bathroom stall and paying for a "transaction" with Mitko, a young high-spirited rent boy, and then begins a dangerous game of the unnamed narrator chasing his explicit desires repeatedly through more encounters with Mitko while struggling with a silent shame that is deep-rooted from his past. Interestingly, Mitko is the only character who is bestowed a name, every other character is reduced down to a single initial and full-stop, which creates a dichotomy of Mitko having something of worth but also representing the unattainable, the fantasy or illusion of desire. He is purposefully placed outside of the world Greenwell creates, therefore making him a more interesting and well crafted character. It is through the slipperiness of the narrator's desire that truly makes the language shine, even in the more explicit moments. Moments of eroticism are so rich with striking beauty it never feels out of place, evoking a subtle sensuality that is all but told with an underlying, aching repression.

'What Belongs to You' reads as quickly as a novella, over a course of 196 pages, but has the sheer gravitas of a novel, not too dissimilar to Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'. The sheer speed I read it at only accounts to the prose having a distinct lack of punctuation, but this helps form a free-flowing narrative that could be read as a confession, striking parallels to James Baldwin's 'Giovanni's Room'. Like Baldwin's narrator, Greenwell's struggles with his desires, dedicating the whole middle section of the novel to recollect moments from his childhood, particularly the taboo of his homosexuality and yearning for his best friend only known as 'K.', and the reflective mood acts as a relatively welcome change from the explosive eroticism between himself and Mitko; memory and desire become unanimously linked.  Thematically, the repression of homosexuality is brutally ingrained throughout. Passers by glance at the narrator with unease, and later on in the novel he speaks about being diseased, unclean, even Mitko doesn't address sexuality, he is merely the object for desire. It is this that really makes the novel all more moving, Greenwell presents the lonely American teacher in a world that fails to understand him, nor he it and is as such denied a voice (reinforcing the deliberate lack of punctuation).
Alongside the most vivid and striking images Greenwell conjures, there are moments that prolong the narrative, and disrupt the free-flow narrative, but luckily these moments are far and few between to make it a serious, disjointing problem.  


As compelling and moving as William Stoner's journey to self-discovery was, Greenwell follows in his footsteps by creating something so rich, so important, so brutally honest that acts as a new landmark in gay literature; accepting your desires, choosing to act on them or not and pushing past the point of repression. A remarkable and raw debut.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How Not To Be A Boy - Robert Webb

"What are we saying to a boy when we tell him to 'man up' or 'act like a man'? More often we're effectively saying, 'Stop expressing those feelings.' And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, 'Stop feeling those feelings.'"

Herein lies the main issue that surrounds Robert Webb's new book How Not To Be A Boy, the idea of how much damage that can be inflicted on to young boys when they are encouraged to behave in ways that supposedly befit their gender. But Webb interweaves this idea tenderly with an autobiographical tale of him growing up in 1970s Lincolnshire with a working class woodcutter for a father and a mother who was tragically taken from him when he was just seventeen. 

   Webb frankly admits how he never really felt like much of a 'boy', taking a dislike for sport, writing a diary, having sticky-out ribs and liking poetry. He is told how he is 'sensitive' and 'shy'…

The Lonely Traveller

We were travellers across worlds dazzling stars and lands far beyond peripheral sight, You the man who bore the fire of the sun  in his crystalised eyes, the passion for eternal knowledge  bristling from your vivacious heart.

You took me by the hand and we danced through the cosmos, jumping from burning comets to shattered moons, thrusting us both into the shimmering tower of light that befitted you a crown, My King. 


From world to world we flew, Botantist Gardens rich with green glaciers that swam like tears, the abode of Everyman encompassing us in comfortable darkness, the singing towers of Tortworth that calmed us when we lost our way, Withybrook’s winding rivers encased us with a profound strength that determined our next steps, these steps took us to the four corners of the universe to unearth every secret; we were happy.


The planets guided us, moulded the foundations of our very being until it was time to rest our weary heads amongst a blanket of stars, laid out by Asteria herself for she took pity on the fati…

Simon James Green Blog Takeover

Since I reviewed Noah Can't Even a few weeks ago, I've been dying to get a hold of Simon James Green as I had a plethora of questions I wanted to ask and as he's so lovely I managed to bag myself an interview with him, so I hereby welcome you to Simon James Green's blog takeover! *trumpet fanfare*

Noah Grimes is the new epitome of teenage awkwardness, is there a little bit of biographical truth deep within the character of Noah? I for one related to many of his problems at school, such as the PE incident...

Thankfully, not too much. As a rule, I was fairly socially inept as a teenager, so there is stuff in the book that’s vaguely based on the sort of things I might do, say or think… although I was never as extreme as Noah, honest! The thing that happens in Sophie’s bathroom where the tap splashes his trousers and it looks like he’s wet himself - that’s real. And I think you’d be hard-pressed (pun intended!) to find a teenage boy who hasn’t encountered any sort of er… boy…