In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.
So begins the letter the unnamed narrator of Dear Thief writes to her former friend, Nina or Butterfly, as she came to be known, over the six months between December 2001 and June 2002.
It’s seventeen years since they’ve seen each other but on Boxing Day night as the music from the jazz club a few doors down comes to an end and it begins to snow, the narrator thinks of Butterfly standing over her bed.
Does she think it was worth it? I wondered. This is what came to me when I pictured you there. Not: Is she happy, is she free, is she alive? – no. Does she think it was worth it?
The narrator goes on to intertwine stories about her current life with stories about the past and particularly her friendship with Butterfly.
She begins with a story about visiting her grandmother knowing she was on the verge of death. During the night, the narrator walked down to the river where she found a collection of bones before returning to her grandmother who died in her absence.
Currently, she lives in central London, near Russell Square, where she’s become friendly with Yannis, a Cretan who runs a Greek store, who is in the middle of a marital crisis. She’s lived there for two years, the flat paid for by the sale of her parents’ home which she inherited. She works full-time in a care home.
Working in the care home, talking to the residents and observing their behaviour, leads her to contemplate life and, of course, death:
…and it seems to me that this whole universe is a crime of passion. So reckless in its short-termism, wreaking such magnificent havoc on those who come to live in it, so unreasonable and grotesque and glorious and rampant and murderous, because nothing escapes it alive, yet nothing escapes it without having lived either, without having been zealously loved and brought to its knees – even if only once for a moment – by it.
Death – and, to some extent, life – could be the thief referenced in the title. The novel begins with a death, there is the death of a relationship, the death of a friendship, the death of members of the care home, the death of who you were when you were younger:
…I am talking about splintering. We hit certain points, we splinter, and bits of ourselves are left behind. I don’t know why this should be, only that time isn’t a slick medium that we slide through into old age, it is lumpy and irregular and breaks us into pieces…there is always freedom in the past. The self you left behind lives in endless possibility. The older you get, the bigger and wilder the past becomes, a place that can never again be tended and which is therefore prone to that loveliness which happens on wastelands and wilderness, where grass has grown over scrap metal and wheat has sprung up in cracks between concrete and there is no regular shape for the light to fall flat on, so it vaults and multiplies and you want to go there. You want to go there like you want to go to a lover.
What happened between the narrator and Butterfly for them to end their friendship is easily anticipated by the reader – it’s hinted at in the novel’s title. However, although the narrative partly drives us to the moment of revelation, it is Harvey’s language which is the most compelling feature. The structure of the letter meanders somewhat, as a real letter to a long lost friend might. We are told about Butterfly; about the narrator’s (ex)husband and son; about Yannis; about her work. But the language is stunning throughout. (I could have chosen so many quotations for this review; my copy of the novel is heavily highlighted.) Harvey considers the major themes of life, death and relationships, often referring to the ideas from major philosophers and theology. (She has a postgraduate qualification in Philosophy.)
Recently, Harvey was interviewed by Gaby Wood of the Telegraph. Wood questioned why Dear Thief hasn’t had more attention. Harvey’s editor, Dan Franklin says:
The really difficult thing about her is that she writes serious books, which is not to the modern taste. People like easy-peasy books that slip down without any trouble. How do you have a career in 2015 writing really thoughtful, philosophical books?
I’m not entirely convinced by this but I do think that because there are so many books published some that should have had more recognition get lost along the way. The thing I love most about the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize is every year I come across two or three writers whom I’ve been intending to read and have never got round to. This year, Harvey is one of those.
Dear Thief is a stunning novel. When I said so on Twitter, people began to tell me that Harvey’s debut, The Wilderness, is even better; if that’s the case, I’ve a real treat in store.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.