Author: Garth Greenwell
Rating: 5 Stars
Review By: Shana
A gorgeously written book, with prose that manages to be almost poetic. Our unnamed narrator is an American expat working as a teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. In all ways, he is an outsider – a foreigner, a non-fluent speaker of Bulgarian, a homosexual in a country where it is relegated to the shadows, an estranged son, a man unsure of what he wants. Greenwell has written something that reads less as a novel with an overarching plot than as a series of meditations or interludes dealing with broader themes of desire and disgust, belonging and ostracization, dominance and submission, facades and truth, shame and self-realization.
Told in three parts, the first and third sections deal largely with the narrator’s life in Sofia and how that life is disrupted when he encounters a young man in an underground bathroom frequented by those seeking to purchase sexual favors. Mitko is at once a foil to and contrast with the narrator – electric and confident and forceful, chameleon-like as he plays to a customer's expectations. While Greenwell masterfully portrays the illicit encounters between Mitko and the narrator, conveying the combined lust and longing with the underlying tawdriness, the heart of the matter is not sex and the most interesting parts are not the sexual ones.
Instead, you see both characters groping for identity and stability in their lives, and you witness the obvious and subtle manipulations Mitko works on the narrator and the narrator’s own willingness to be manipulated. Even more, you see the interesting and shifting power dynamics, with the narrator being nominally in charge as the patron and Mitko in desperate need for money, but with Mitko in control of how close he allows the narrator to get and wielding his magnetism (and later a certain physical intimidation and threat of violence) that makes his position often seem superior. Perhaps most striking is the ongoing description of how the narrator wants this to be more than a paid encounter, wants to think of himself as benevolent and them as friends, wants to avoid being crude or crass.
The middle section is told mostly in flashback and recalls the narrator awakening to his attraction to men, his first physical encounters, and the deterioration and eventual severing of his relationship with his father. Here we meet his step-sisters, get insight into how the utter rejection by his father shaped him, and the secrets his father was keeping. Through the story of one step-sister and the father, we find echoes of earlier themes dealing with the faces we present to the world and the aching need to belong.
By the third section, the sexual relationship is all but over (with two years having passed from the initial section), the narrator is in a committed relationship, but Mitko still manages to have an out-sized effect on the narrator’s daily life.
A brief but beautiful book, painful in turns and uncomfortable, but a treasure.