The Book We're Talking About: 'Dear Thief' By Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief
by Samantha Harvey
Atavist Books, $20.00
Published October 28, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

Dear Thief burrows deep into the mind of its tormented narrator, excavating the complex ways in which trauma can be manifested and healing can be sought.

The title of Samantha Harvey’s new novel, Dear Thief, can also be read as the first line of the book. Dear Thief is a letter, and the title its salutation. The unnamed narrator addresses herself throughout to some enigmatic, distant other; a thief who is also, somehow, dear to the aggrieved speaker; a thief who was once a beloved friend.

The letter, which veers from guilt-ridden to accusatory, chatty to anguished, maps the tortured psychology of a close friendship marred by betrayal. The narrator opens largely with reminiscences, picking up the threads of long-ago conversations and dwelling tenderly on the teenage exploits she shared with her friend, whom she calls Butterfly. She reveals snapshots of her current life, years removed from the events she’s remembering, though it’s unclear at first what’s passed in between. She reveals that she no longer knows how to reach her friend, though she writes anyway, and she poignantly recalls a romance that led to a marriage that led to her only son. Through it all, Butterfly drifts in and out, an ambivalent presence both welcome and threatening in the narrator’s life, in the way only a truly intimate friend can be. Slowly, as the letter winds on, the narrator reluctantly allows us to glimpse the roots of her anger and suffering, and of the rift that has separated her from Butterfly.

An entire novel in one letter could grow claustrophobic, but Harvey widens the universe of the book with her deft use of suspense, the psychological complexity of her narrator, and the wide-ranging scope, which ecompasses flashbacks from years before, imagined present existences, and anecdotes from her current day-to-day, all interwoven with recurring allusions to the Upanishads. The narrator is open about her own unreliability, frequently admitting she’s glossed over or avoided subjects too close to the painful heart of their rift, or that she’s projected too freely what her lost friend’s life might now look like. The letter is perpetually under revision, circling back on its own errors to rewrite a more true version of history.

Harvey’s playfulness with language and meaning, as evidenced by the very title, infuses the book with vitality, charging every scene with hidden significance. From the eerie opening scene, in which the narrator remembers gathering animal bones along the Thames the night her grandmother died, the book hovers somewhere between realism and allegory, with each event and object (pearls, playing cards, a shawl) so freighted with layers of meaning that they seem more device than reality at times. At its best, her prose achieves this with graceful bluntness, though it sometimes veers into frenzied poeticism; occasionally the overwrought posturing of the letter grates, as when Harvey relies on melodramatic outbursts for reaction: “Oh, to have murdered you, Butterfly, with my heart on fire.”

These missteps, however, don’t dilute the visceral, haunting thrill of Harvey’s novel, which explores the psychological trauma of an intimate betrayal with such empathy that readers will feel drawn into the narrator’s own confused sense of self, fear of closeness, and longing for exactly what has hurt her.

What other reviewers think:
The Guardian: "The novel is presented as a long letter, a literary device that is difficult to pull off, but Harvey's innovations electrify every word."

Publishers Weekly: "With her eerie and arresting latest, Harvey (The Wilderness) gives the neologism “frenemy” a full-book treatment."

Who wrote it?
Samantha Harvey is the author of three novels, including The Wilderness, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in England.

Who will read it?
Fans of dark, psychologically complex literary fiction.

Opening lines:
“In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life. But to tell you about it I will have to share with you a brief story.”

Notable passage:
“Life is short. Life shoots you a lethal dose of time. Time is a drug that wears off. You seem to stare at me from under that crooked fringe as if to say, You brought this up. Or worse, as if to say: Put your pen down, my friend, forget it; I will never be sorry. I was trying to save myself; I failed, but at least I had the dignity to want to be saved. More fool you, if you don’t want to save yourself too.”