Dear ThiefDear Thief by Samantha Harvey
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

It’s too late, I think. The days of being desired and being burdened by desire and competing for it, these days are over and now I am what’s left.

lovely, recognizable, and mournful right? all of my favorite things. but.

here is a list of authors who are well-regarded by readers, critics, and awards committees alike, whose writing i can objectively recognize is excellent and polished, but who do nothing for me as a reader: Marilynne Robinson, Anne Enright, Siri Hustvedt, Jim Crace, Elizabeth Smart. this book is written in the same general style as those authors, and it left me flat, but if you are a fan of any of the above, i am pretty sure you will like this one.

there is no doubt she can write – some of the passages in this book are breathtaking:

I wonder if not being able to see ourselves is one of the great paradoxes of being alive – knowing oneself intimately and also not at all. You turn to look at your own profile in the mirror and it is gone. It means we can harbour all kinds of illusions about ourselves that others can see through as clear as day. What I mean is that if you had been able to see yourself objectively that afternoon you might have realised that the game was lost, but instead I think you fancied yourself in some little role in some little story in which you were the heroic returner, the one much waited for, the one who would be forgiven by some obscure law of justice that grants immunity to the tragic.

tonally, it is reminiscent of some of my favorite things, like durrell’s Justine or some of leonard cohen’s gems, like famous blue raincoat and even more so master song, and it is very preoccupied with intellectualized eroticism and spirituality, but while she can absolutely turn a phrase with admirable eloquence and grace:

…I had stood there in the humid Spanish night as if drugged, convinced that what was happening was somehow an inevitability of your fate, to which we were all silent witnesses and secondary players. But then you were always so convincing, and your fate was always the most pressing.

No, let me make it clear. I was not docile, or passive. I dressed myself up as the forgiving sort, but there is forgiving, and there is also tolerating, which is forgiveness in rags. And then there is something else, which is nothing short of a heartless fascination with somebody’s downfall. On our journey back from Spain, looking at you as you slept, I began to realise that if it was your fate you wanted, you could have it – your sad, sordid, wretched fate of self-annihilation.

there just wasn’t enough story here to hold my interest. all dressed up and no place to go.

the story is structured as a meandering confessional letter, written over a long period of time, by a woman to her vanished friend, aptly nicknamed “butterfly.” butterfly falls under that archetype of mysterious women who drift into the lives of others, leave a lasting mark, but remain themselves inscrutable. years ago, she had an affair with the narrator’s husband, bewitched her son with her tattered glamor, and was last seen on a self-destructive path of drugs and sex and wanderings, following the pull of history. the letter itself is nostalgic, oscillating between condemnation and love and forgiveness, but also frequently affectless, loaded with precise and fussy details:

I am at my escritoire at just gone four in the morning with my hand welded to a pen with a split nib, suddenly curious about you after years of an incuriosity you might call callous. It’s been a mild and dreary Christmas but suddenly, on Boxing Day night, it has started snowing, and I’ve had to go and find a blanket from the airing cupboard. As soon as the first flake of snow fell I thought of you, as it landed on the pane in that ludicrous wet collapse that removes all mystery.

it describes the whole of the fractured love triangle, the past and present, the imprint that butterfly left behind, and the complicated pull of emotions butterfly has inspired, with some pointy jabs that make it clear that time and distance have gone a long way towards diminishing butterfly’s supposed mystique

To your mind’s eye you might have been positively operatic, a woman in her late thirties alone at a station in an ankle-length out-of-fashion dress and a shawl and her hair wrapped up in a green scarf, standing beneath the transom of the waiting-room window where she holds defiantly to the burden of her beauty. Leaves gathering at her suitcase and feet, like the children she never had. Tell me you did not think like this.

You think like this because it is difficult to accept that when we find ourselves most operatic we are usually just farcical. I could cry to think of you now, the way you turned to smile at me when I walked up to you. You had the Devil dull and black in your eye. You were too thin and you were not old enough to look as old as you did, which is not to say you were no longer beautiful – for an overwhelming minority of people, beauty is an affliction they have to bear regardless of what they do to themselves, and which prompts other people to expect too much from them.

while it is no doubt cathartic for the character to have written this letter, there’s just nothing particularly compelling in the exercise. it’s frustrating for me to be able to acknowledge her writing as unquestionably accomplished, but ultimately not coalescing into what i consider to be a story.

but that’s just my own personal hang-up – i know many people are going to love this, which is great, because she’s got mad chops. it’s just not my kinda thing.

read my reviews on goodreads

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