What Belongs to You is (adult) gay contemporary fiction. It’s taken me a little while to review this one as I needed to let it settle. It’s a tough read, not because of the style or the length—it’s a fairly short novel and elegantly written—but because watching the main character manhandle their emotions and cycle through their self-loathing is difficult to witness. If those don’t sound like things you want to read about, this isn’t the book for you.
The story is about an American teacher living in Sofia, who starts an on-off relationship with a young sex worker, Mitko. The narrator (who I don’t think is ever named) becomes fixated with Mitko, but their relationship is always an uneasy one, complicated by the narrator’s self-loathing and their uneven economic status. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the narrator is far from easy with himself, that likely every decision he’s made in adulthood has been complicated by feelings left over from his childhood and his father’s rejection of his sexuality. I thought the emotional layering was well done. The way the narrator constantly fails to make the best choices for himself creeps up on you with slow frustration and then begins to make sense when more of his past is revealed.
The only thing I didn’t get on with, and this is more a visual discomfort thing for me, is that there are no paragraphs in the middle section of the novel. It’s a retrospective section about the narrator’s adolescence and his complicated relationship both with his own sexuality and with his father. Whilst perhaps the format reflects that mire of emotions, it made my eyes hurt and I’m not grateful for that.
Overall, this is a fairly heavy read, but it’s worth it for Greenwell’s handling of the ways our past shapes our present. I like the unreliable narrator and I’m interested in the ways we lie to ourselves about our own emotions. I also like a book that pulls the reader into the atmosphere and emotion, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s a book that leaves readers the space to do some working out for themselves and I think it’s worth the effort.