Book Review: What Belongs to You — Garth Greenwell
by Dani Hedlund
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, opens with a four-line sentence containing five separate clauses. The sentences that follow, shockingly, become more complex and esoteric, words—coterminous, ubiquitous, autumnal—littering the first paragraph, sentences rarely shorter than three or four lines.
After the first page, I had the distinct feeling that this book was either going to be brilliant, or—more likely—it was going to be insufferable, an immature author compensating for his insecurities with loquacious prose.
I decided right there and then that I didn’t want to like this book.
And I got what I wanted. I didn’t like it…I loved it.
In an industry where authors are constantly trying to make their narratives more accessible to an ADD readership, Garth Greenwell bravely puts the language first. With his complex narrative voice, he has created a work that is not afraid to be bold, either in the use of poetics or in his controversial content.
The novel opens with our narrator, a young American teacher working in Bulgaria, cruising for sex in a public bathroom. There he meets Mitko, a handsome Bulgarian prostitute. Trapped between dirty stall doors, this first sexual encounter foreshadows the strange force Mitko will have over the narrator’s life, drenching the entire novel in powerful sexual desire and harrowing dissatisfaction.
This controversial opening sets the stage for the real bravery in Greenwell’s writing. Always haunted by his unquenchable desire for Mitko’s affections, our narrator enters into a strange relationship with his prostitute, hurling himself into a cycle of poor decisions. As his needs grow more desperate and self-reflective, the reader free-falls through the narrator’s past, piecing the man together through the experiences that brought him to Bulgaria, still seeking acceptance from a childhood that rejected him.
Although the narrator’s journey focuses primarily on the queer experience—fearlessly addressing the stigma of shame and uncleanliness that haunts gay culture—the book also exposes elements universal to all of us. From the desperation to be loved to the deceptive ways we protect ourselves, What Belongs to You tells the compelling and complex story of struggling to find one’s place in the world.
Through this innovative lens of sex and poetry, Greenwell demands more from his reader than I’ve experienced in years. He expects you to read with concentration. He expects you to face hard, horrifying facts about the queer experience, and about the universal experience of wanting things we shouldn’t have. He expects you to close the book and look inside yourself, to expose the hidden parts—the parts you don’t like—and ask yourself why they are there.
What Belongs to You is the first book I’ve read in years that has really challenged me, and I promise you, if you rise to that challenge, it will reward you tenfold.