What belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is a novel about the intimacy and friendship of an English teacher and a male prostitute, Mitko, in Bulgaria. It follows their encounter in a public bathroom, and then continued encounters in other cities, other homes, until they become more than simply strangers. However, during their encounter in a different city, they fight after Mitko brushes off sex multiple times in a hotel room. The narrator believes he’s owed something after paying for the trip while Mitko grows angry because he feels he’s seen only as an object. Mitko soon promises to never see the narrator again. For a time they go their separate ways, until one day as the narrator is teaching English, he gets a note telling him his father is about to die. This thread pulls out the narrator’s past, describing his fathers disdain for him sexuality. When he was still a child, the narrator befriended and then kissed another boy, K. Though, after the kiss, K pulls away from the narrator, starts dating a girl, and, in the final glimpse of the memory, he watches as K and the girl kiss and then is given a blowjob as a way to tell the narrator that he isn’t gay. He becomes estranged from his father, from K, and what he feels is the rest of the US. The narrator, after the memories resurface decides against seeing his father before he dies by throwing away the note. The narrative returns a few years later, where the narrator has a loose relationship with a Columbian guy, but it all comes into question when Mitko shows up at the narrator’s door. Mitko tells him he has syphilis, shows him his penis for proof, and asks for money for treatment. This later encounter shows Mitko at a much lower point, where for a few months he had to be hospitalized. The narrator decides to get tested, of which he’s told it’s positive and he soon gets pills to take. Then his mother visits him in Bulgaria and they take a train where he watches and talks to a boy who reminds him of Mitko, possibly a version of Mitko before things went wrong. Finally, one night Mitko comes knocking on the narrator's door again but this time he’s high and drunk. He confesses he’s going to die, so they lay down for a few minutes, holding each other, before the narrator soon cuts Mitko off and tells him to leave. In the last moments he watches Mitko as he walks into the night.
The novel is structured in three parts, meeting Mitko the first few times and the small fall out, the walk and memories of his father and his childhood, and finally the illness and decline of Mitko. This structure evokes the idea that the narrator sees Mitko as a strong and loud figure (re: the scene in the hotel) in the beginning, but soon sees a man who has become weak and childlike (even explicitly paralleling the child on the train to Mitko). In his mind, the narrator also sees two versions of Mitko, the charismatics and simple natured friend, and the hustler simply looking for money to say alive. These two versions pop up throughout and battle, at times hating Mitko and believing he is just taking advantage of the narrator, and other times really loving him. I loved the interiority of the novel, how easily the narrative flows, and the complexity of the narrator's feelings. Overall it was a heart wrenching and deeply emotional novel that I will certainly be returning to.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.