What Belongs To You: Garth Greenwall's début novel feels timeless
by Drew Rowsome -
There are intense experiences that are common to most gay men: coming out, a sexual relationship with Mr Wrong, the exhilaration and terror of sexual encounters in a public space, family strife, sex across cultural and class lines, mistaking transactions for love, the fear of having contracted an STD . . . These experiences are also common to gay literary fiction but when written as evocatively as in What Belongs To You, the experiences are fresh while also echoing in one's DNA.
A self-aware poet takes a teaching job in Bulgaria and, while cruising the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture, is picked up by a hustler and develops a love/lust relationship. The author is too cynical to expect romance or a happy ending, too romantic to not believe in it. Author Garth Greenwell's prose is concise but arranged in long, looping sentences and paragraphs that move in an erotic rhythm that is hypnotic. To begin reading the novel is to be drawn in inexorably and pulled to the finish.
While the relationship with Mitko the Bulgarian hustler forms the centrepiece of the narrative, What Belongs To You shifts in time with the death of the poet's father as a trigger. There is a heartbreaking and remarkably written coming out story that feels like all our stories but also utterly unique. The discovery and denouement of this section fills in the poet's motivation and we understand, beyond the already established erotic fixation, why this not-a-love story is so crucial to him.
The language and cultural barriers the men struggle with do provide a partial portrait of gay life in a world foreign to most, but Greenwell is after something deeper. The way words differ, the nuances of what we are trying to say, illustrates the gulf between what we try to express and how it is interpreted. What Belongs To You is a graceful hymn to the inability to communicate and hence to love, but also how important it is to keep trying.
Even a digression that at first seems like narrative filler, echoes back to flesh out a threat of violence that drives the final chapter with a relentless thrust, building to a climax that is denied. Anyone who has ever fallen hard, fallen inexplicably, for someone erotically fulfilling but emotionally dangerous (and again I suspect most gay men have that on their resumé) will see themselves in the poet and wince and/or laugh ruefully. What Belongs To You seduces by telling us that we can never own someone else but we can take ownership of our history and emotions, painful and ecstatic as that process is.