This is the second book in the last 12 months to be acclaimed both in gay and straight literary circles as a gay lit masterpiece – perhaps they both are! I wrote a note on Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ which is on this blog. The interesting thing about the two books is their similarities yet extreme differences. Yanagihara’s is a long work of conventional prose (720 pages) set in an almost heteronormative world. At its core is a wounded person struggling with the damage incurred in his early life. Greenwell’s book is stylistically utterly different and quite short (approx. 300 pages) but with a similarly wounded character.
‘What Belongs to You’ is broken into three sections – ‘Mitko’, ‘A Grave’ and ‘The Pox’. Each is stylistically somewhat different though all use the contemporary notion of lost quotation marks wedded to a flow of consciousness style that is at its most extreme in the second section which is one long paragraph. Greenwell’s book is set firmly in the world of gay cruising (albeit in a very unusual and remote location – Bulgaria) with only minor elements of heteronormativity in the form of lover R (one character, Mitko, is granted a name, all others are either nameless or are represented by capital letters only). Both books, in my view, share a concern for desire and longing (a common review comment) though I would go further and argue that power issues and personal control in the contemporary gay world is central to both.
Section I – Mitko – concerns the narrator’s involvement with a homeless young Bulgarian man (his priyateli) of considerable attractions which narrows into an intensity of lust and desire which is only matched by his difficulty in dealing with the harsh reality of his situation.
Section II – The Grave – is a dramatically sudden shift from the Bulgarian High School Language class of the American narrator back to his home and dying father where we are intensely taken through the influences of his childhood and focussing particularly on his rejection by his best friend K and his father.
“His look entered me and settled there and has never left .. It rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.”
He is subjected to a triumphal and demeaning rejection by K and is reminded of his father’s words on reading his diary –
“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”
Section III – Pox – involves a final wrenched parting with Mitko, a partial resolution with his mother and a muted acceptance of his growing relationship with R. It contains a passage in which he travels by train with his newly-arrived mother and a grandmother and her grandson. I found this to be one of the most dense, beautifully written and most moving portions of the book – but there are plenty of others that have a compact beauty that is worth savouring.
I cannot put one of these books ahead of the other. Both troubled and uplifted me. Both can lay claim to stylistic excellence. All I can suggest, if you are interested, is to sample some of the online full reviews (if you care for them) and perhaps even dip into the online interviews of both authors. In one case, Hanya even interviews Garth!