Working as a reviews editor has permanently shifted my focus to books that aren’t actually out yet. I’m reading books right now that won’t publish until next May and June.
So I’ve been sitting on my recommendation of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You for a few months, but it’s time to start the groundswell. Technically, it’s out on January 19, but put it on your radar now, because it’s the first great novel of 2016.
An American teacher in Bulgaria meets a young man named Mitko in the bathroom of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. What follows is a series of encounters between the teacher and Mitko: it starts as purely sexual, but their relationship becomes increasingly complicated. The book is brilliantly structured: nearly every scene is a discrete encounter between the two, often beginning with the narrator in his apartment late at night when Mitko knocks. This suite structure allows Greenwell space to delve into gesture, body language, smells and textures, and allows readers to track the fascinating, bordering on addictive, way in which the relationship develops.
Greenwell’s ability to parse the complex emotional push-and-pull between the two men is incredible, and rivals books like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. His images are spot-on (Mitko standing at a gas station in the rain without an umbrella). Having never been to Bulgaria, the Bulgaria of What Belongs to You is how I now imagine it. The ending will probably destroy you (if I remember correctly, my reaction was something like a pained “Oh.”). And in Mitko, Greenwell has created one of the best characters in recent years.
What Belongs to You is a great tragedy, and Greenwell is a great writer. I’ll be reading whatever he writes next.