I feel like I’m out of my depth here with What Belong To You but I’m going to do my best to put down my thoughts in a coherent manner. The story, as you would have gathered from the synopsis, follows an American professor as he settles into his life in Bulgaria and meets Mitko, a hustler/prostitute, and starts a sort of relationship with him. But in a way it’s a story about why the professor falls for this terrible person and why he allows himself to be manipulated in the way he does.
The protagonist is someone with emotional problems, be it commitment issues or self respect, he doesn’t seem to know what he wants and when he does think he wants something, he goes out of his way to destroy it. Set, appropriately, in the cold landscape of Bulgaria, What Belongs To You follows Mitko, a street hustler who does many things and The Professor. He sells sex, sells muscle and maybe a lot more that he refuses to admit to out protagonist. And despite the warning bells in his head, our professor goes ahead and falls in desire with Mitko. No, he doesn’t fall in love. He isn’t capable of love it seems like, he falls in desire.
The story doesn’t explore a gay relationship (I mean it doesn’t focus on the homosexuality of it). Rather it focusses on how one can end up in an abusive; one sided relationship despite knowing that is fake. It explores how one can desire the feeling of hurt, of betrayal and come back over and over again, supposedly hoping for a different outcome, but in reality expecting just another bad thing to happen. There are points where the professor actually tells us how he’s felt disappointed in not having bad things happen to him. A sort of justification or some sort of consequence for his existence is what he things these bad fortunes are. He seems to think he deserves it.
The story is divided into parts and the author uses the writing style as an art form to showcase to us what the character is feeling. With one of the chapters where he focusses on parental issues having little to no paragraph breaks, the section leaves you with a sense of claustrophobia and bondage. Like you’ve got no escape from the hell that is that time in life or like you cannot get away from the overwhelming feelings that you’re feeling for someone but you cannot do anything about it. It about a man who cannot come to terms with how things have turned out but he knows he cannot have expected anything different even then.
The rest of the sections are all about his exchanges with Mitko, about how he cannot get over the allure of him, maybe he reminds him of someone(?) or maybe he is a masochist who just knows how to pick the one that will hurt him the most. Whatever it is, it leaves you with a morbid curiosity, wondering what would happen if he gave Mitko another chance.
The only problem I had was with the excessive focus on the landscape of Bulgaria and the obsession with concrete. We get that he’s living in a colourless world but it got so repetitive to the point that I started to feel that maybe this would have been better as a novella. Nevertheless, I do think you ought to read this if you’re looking for something different from the norm. This is a tough story to read and while reviews say that it isn’t different from the usual gay novels, I haven’t read many gay novels so it was different for me.
I requested a review copy from the publisher (who very generously accepted) but opinions expressed are my own.