Book Review: Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
In her third novel, Samantha Harvey steered into a new avenue in her writing and accomplished something truly remarkable. Dear Thief is a long letter, from the unnamed narrator to Nina – Butterfly; her friend, the thief. It’s written over several nights and spans decades of their relationship, this on and off friendship that is reinvented and redefined with every encounter. Dear Thief pulls you into the intimate world of these two friends and their troubled love triangle, and ends up being perhaps the most evocative, poignant, and effective second-person novel ever written.
The focal point, in terms of plot, revolves around the events that led to Butterfly having an affair with Nicolas, the narrator’s husband. This is told decades after the fact, when the narrator is old and living alone. The only person with which she really interacts is Yannis, a Greek restaurant owner who is going through his own marital troubles. The letter jumps back and forth in time and space, and with every step the narrator shines more light on Butterfly than on herself or Nicolas, and a large part of it is imaginary. Butterfly is one of those people who are always looking for something, travels a lot without staying put for too long, and leaves no trace after she’s left. In the decades since the last time the narrator saw her, Butterfly might have gone to Lithuania, as she intended, to find her brother. She could be living deep in the desert, as she mentioned many years ago in a postcard she sent to Teddy, the narrator’s son who is now grown up. The narrator has constructed an entire life for Butterfly; she has decorated her small house in the desert where she is isolated, studying the Upanishads, and imagines Butterfly reading this letter there. She also tells Butterfly about how she imagines the extramarital encounters with Nicolas; what they say, what they drink, how they smoke. If some of these details sound familiar, it is because the format of the novel, as well as several other elements, are based on Leonard Cohen’s classic “Famous Blue Raincoat.” In many ways, it can be read as a novelisation of that song.
Dear Thief is thoughtful, passionate, and deeply honest. It is written with the skill and talent of a poet delving deep into the heart of human insecurity, surrender, and need for understanding the other. So the most important question about this novel, which is addressed by Gaby Wood in her Telegraph article, is: Why haven’t you heard of it?
Dan Franklin’s own answer to this is that Samantha Harvey is writing for a small audience; she is writing literary fiction that is trying to present something new and demanding more from the reader. Even when he publishes writers coming from the same place – Julian Barnes, Martin Amis – he is never sure they will sell. So, bad luck? If that’s the case, how many other truly great books are slipping through the cracks while E.L. James sells her millions? How do you find these books when no one is talking loudly enough about them? Prizes help, even if only shortlisted, but I doubt there are enough prizes to cover the losses.
One recent example that comes to mind is Vintage’s recent republication of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (no connection to the Tom Cruise film), a novel which soon after publication in 2000 failed to secure a wide readership and eventually went out of print. After years of its few copies being passed from reader to reader, it is finally getting the treatment it deserves with the new edition. Let’s not wait for that to happen with Dear Thief – pick up a copy now.
Successfully impersonated a student of English literature for three years, and is now doing a masters in Publishing. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.