Love is a mystery. I have still not been able to figure it out and more so, know what role I play in its larger plan for me, if it does have any plan laid out for me that is. I had been putting off reading “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell for the longest time. I know why. Let me share it with you. It is because in my head it was about unrequited love (which it is) and about disease (again it is about that), but above all it was about selfish love mostly and I had been through it. I thought I would read it and it will all come back to me, haunting me all over again, but it did not. I read the book and all I can say with utmost confidence is that you must read it – everyone must. Though it is about gay love, but love is love after all and hence this book will make that impact felt deeply with readers who have loved or aspire to fall in love.
“What Belongs to You” is about a nameless narrator – an American male, whose name and age is not mentioned, teaching at an institute in Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria and his encounter with a local rent boy, Mitko. The book is about the narrator’s love and desire for Mitko. I wish I could say the book is just about that and leave it at that – but I can’t do that, because it wouldn’t do justice to the book. “What Belongs to You” is a landscape of desire, which is undone for its characters. Their loves are undone. Their desires do not see the light of day and how emotional and monetary exchanges build or rather feed on people’s weaknesses.
The book reads like a confession – the narrator speaks of his encounter with Mitko one fine day at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia and this is how the book begins. Lust is on the fore of this highly emotional roller-coaster of a ride novel. Greenwell somehow eases the reader into the first encounter between the narrator and rent boy. They are obviously to meet on more than one occasion – money will exchange hands in place of sexual favors and this is how the world is – there is really no awkwardness from Mitko’s side as this is what he does for a living, but one can sense the narrator’s discomfort and how he is pulled apart by his love for Mitko (possessive, envious, the kind of love we have all been through) and his past – his relationship with his father as he came out, the boy he loved (K) and how all he wanted was his father to accept and love him for who he was. Greenwell manages this with great tenderness and tact and this was the part of the novel, where I actually cried. I could relate to the dynamics as it would have played out with my father, which it never did and this continues to be one of my biggest regrets.
The narrator leaves Mitko many times in the course of the book. He realizes that perhaps Mitko at some point is toxic and he needs to find his own, because Mitko all said and done will never love him.
“As I had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if the welcome is contrived”
The third and final part of the book is about Mitko’s return – and the part which is most gut-wrenching as it is about disease and how the two cope with it in their own way. The narrator by now has a boyfriend R and the relationship dynamics there I thought were rushed a little. Having said that, what struck me at this point was the xenophobia which was subtly displayed as the narrator goes from clinic to clinic getting tests done. At the same time, the concept of fear was delicately probed time and again and yet amidst all of this is the unrequited love and desire that hangs in the balance. Greenwell never lets you forget for once that the book is about people who love, lose, falter, make terrible decisions, try and become better people in all probability and have no one to go to but themselves.
“What Belongs to You” to me was one of the highlight novels I’ve read this year. It definitely features in my Top 10 reads of the year so far and all I can say is that you have to go and pick up this novel – read it at leisure, soak in the emotions and pray and hope that you aren’t caught weeping uncontrollably.