What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Consider it a question. What belongs to you, really? Are your experiences, memories, infidelities and embarrassments entirely your own? Private moments, of course, are yours to bottle up and bury. Keep them, but their retention doesn’t make those feelings exclusively yours: you’re just another person with secrets and there’s surely someone out there who know what you’re going through.
With rhapsodic nostalgic prose, Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs To You functions as a great equalizer: he pares away specificity from a seemingly foreign story to reveal an achingly reflective emotional core. Somehow, there is a mirror here for everyone. Greenwell shows how universal the heart is, in all its swells and fractures, and the empathy he elicits is staggering. Protagonists Mitko and the novel’s narrator are rendered so finely that the pain we feel for their heartache is real. And, if we know that pain so well, maybe it’s not theirs, but something that belongs to all of us.
What Belongs To You opens about as far as possible from where the world’s general readership may typically find themselves: the narrator is in a restroom in Sofia, Bulgaria, and he’s meeting a man named Mitko for sex. That sex is had: it is succinct, alienating, as erotic as it is fleeting. The explicitness of their meeting may flush some cheeks but hopefully will quickly give way to more constructive thoughts about how homosexuality has previously been portrayed in contemporary literature: here for once, it’s not a defining trait or the root of conflict, a secret to explore in private or a fact to turn a plot (these are pitfalls even novelists as great as Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Toibin fall into from time to time); for once it’s just there, end of discussion. The book aims for, and achieves, a higher purpose.
Mitko and the narrator’s relationship quickly develops: what begins with a few coordinated trysts evolves swiftly into a tenuously balanced interdependence. Mitko has a history of hustling, and might, at this moment, need the narrator simply to get off the streets and under a roof. The narrator quietly buzzes with loneliness, and Mitko might assuage his need for companionship. Mitko wants and needs him, perfect for a person who longs for that kind of attention:
“…every now and then he glanced at me, as if to make sure I was still there or that my attention was still fixed on him, and his look now wasn’t innocent, anything but; it was a look that singled me out, a look full of promise, and under its heat I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look away.”
On a darker level, there’s a side of the narrator that simply wants to use Mitko, to be powerful and call the shots (he did begin their relationship with his wallet, after all). Similarly, Mitko has a brawn to him that could effortlessly overtake the narrator, and he repeatedly hits him up for money, bus fare, medication, food. They possess a mutual lust and an inherent need for giving and taking from one another, and they manage, in their broken English and Bulgarian, to achieve a heartbreaking, almost loving balance:
“He lay like some marine creature wrapped around me, wrapping around me again if I shifted or half woke, and I slept as I have seldom slept, deeply and almost without disturbance, held like his beloved or his child; or held, I suppose it must be said, like his captive or his prey.”
Their relationship runs aground when their private motivations don’t appear to align. The novel’s second section is Mitko-free and revolves almost entirely around a Proustian spiral through the narrator’s childhood, around early friendships, first loves, and his falling out with his father. Again, Greenwell brings readers to a very specific point in his narrator’s life and finds a way to universalize those experiences for all his readers. When the narrator walks with a boy he likes through his old neighborhood to show him the house he grew up in “as though in the very architecture there were some further revelation [he] could make,” Greenwell graces us with yet another resounding moment of the heart. Not only does this scene recall Mitko, earlier in the novel, carefully washing the narrator’s laptop screen before bringing up some personal photos from his past, but it also stirs something more abstract and emotional about our own histories within each of us.
At only 200 pages, What Belongs To You is astonishingly efficient. With a calculated pacing, Greenwell teeters from the spectacle of sex and domestic arguments to moments of unsuspecting beauty and minutiae. At the end of the novel, Greenwell devotes a lengthy scene to a train ride his narrator takes with his mother in Bulgaria. The two Americans are captivated by a chatty, bored Bulgarian boy. The boy plays a lonely game looking out the window and the narrator recalls “it was something I had done, too, staring out of windows on long trips in the car.” Later, after the boy “made a particular gesture with his hand, curling his fingers slightly and holding them both palm up before him, a pleading gesture,” he understands “the reason [he] had been unable to look away. It was one of Mitko’s gestures… all of the boy’s gestures were ones [he] had seen Mitko use…”
All around he begins to see this sort of overlay of emotions, recurrences of traits he thought were so specific to his own selfish experiences or to Mitko and his unique allure. It is beautifully humbling to see how similarly we all feel, love and learn to love.