Greenwell depicts the emotionally haunted life of an expatriate American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria—who seems to be the same unnamed character who narrated his highly praised debut novel, What Belongs to You (2016).
At the heart of that last novel was Mitko, a gay hustler who fueled the narrator’s pained desire, then disgust, and ultimately empathy, but he doesn’t appear here. The narrator pushes more sexual boundaries this time, and Greenwell admirably pushes them too by depicting those desires with an unflinching frankness. Sadomasochism, unprotected sex, the narrator’s voyeuristic attraction to one of his students: They are all elements of the story, portrayed in Greenwell’s precise, elegant style. The narrator’s experience seems to align with Greenwell’s; the writer has acknowledged the autofictional nature of his writing. Depictions of rough sex bookend the novel, but it’s the narrator’s relationship with Portuguese student R., who appeared briefly in What Belongs to You, that occupies most of Greenwell’s attention. Both marooned in Sofia, the men are happy together until they acknowledge the futilities both of staying in Bulgaria and in a long-distance relationship. One of Greenwell’s talents is making everyday occurrences feel dramatic and full of ambivalence and nuance, but the scenes featuring the relationship at the heart of the novel suffer a bit in comparison to the dramatic sex depicted in other sections. Still, the simple beauty of the writing is something to behold. Here he is evoking a wind from Africa that assaults Sofia: “There was something almost malevolent about it, as if it were an intelligence, or at least an intention, carrying off whatever wasn’t secure, worrying every loose edge.”
Brave and beautiful.