Garth Greenwell - What Belongs to YouFarrar, Straus and Giroux. 2016. 208 pages. 

Reviewed by Conor Burke

Garth Greenwell’s moving debut novel, What Belongs to You, details the experiences of an American expat living in Bulgaria as he journeys through his own lust and desire, through the addiction he feels for Mitko—the young, sometimes volatile wanderer whom the novel’s unnamed protagonist meets in the below-ground bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture—and through his exploration of the maze of his own life, an exploration that he seems to hope will lead him toward a fuller understanding of himself and of those other bodies who are, at one time or another, and so often unavoidably so, an essential part of that self.

The novel is structured into three sections: the first details both the initial meeting between the protagonist and Mitko as well as the flare and burn of the precarious relationship the two men establish between themselves; the second, sparked by news of the sudden illness of his estranged father, prompts an interrogation into the protagonist’s childhood, exploring his expulsion from the closeness and intimacy he once shared with his father as well as revealing the story of his first (and, compared to all those that follow, most encompassing) love for K.; the third returns to the present moment in Bulgaria and examines the consequences and aftermath that follow his earlier and continued entanglements with Mitko.

From this it is clear that Mitko and the feelings he elicits from the protagonist serve as a framework for the novel, as an embodiment of a centralized question (or perhaps a series of questions) the novel tries to chase down from one page to the next. Though he isn’t directly part of the long, single-chapter second section, one can feel Mitko’s presence just off-stage as the writing pushes and pushes the reader to scale the protagonist’s troubled experience with K. and with his father against all he feels and can’t quite fully understand in his encounters with Mitko and in his new life located so far from where he left the old one behind.

Later in the novel, we again have Mitko’s presence, despite his physical absence, when the protagonist and his mother travel by train across Bulgaria, sharing a car with a trio of strangers, one of whom is a young boy who quickly can’t bring himself to sit still, but instead slips into the performance of a series of antics that delight the others but generate a partial dismay in his grandmother (who tries with varying degrees of seriousness to rein him in). At one point during this encounter Greenwell writes,

Get down, his grandmother said sharply, I’ve already told you, and the boy dropped his hands, not
in surrender but to have them free for bargaining. But you don’t know what I’m going to do, he
protested, his voice full of the injustice of it, I haven’t even tried yet. Just wait, just let me try, then
see if it’s bad, and he made a particular gesture with his hands, curling his fingers slightly and
holding them both palm up before him, a pleading gesture…

From this and from what else occurs in the scene, the speaker realizes with stark surprise that so much of what the boy performs—how he moves, the gestures of his hands, his flight from one end to another of a visible emotional spectrum—recalls exactly all that he has been drawn to in the manner and movement of Mitko, and suggests much about how we learn the cultural and gendered roles