I saw Samantha Harvey’s latest book in the ‘new in’ section of my local library and immediately picked it up. I’ve read The Wilderness twice (review here) and have wanted to explore more of Harvey’s writing.
Dear Thief is a letter penned by an unnamed narrator to her estranged friend, Nina. She doesn’t know where Nina, otherwise known as Butterfly, is or if she’s alive. The letter revisits a betrayal that happened many years before, and sees the narrator dissect their friendship and what is left of it.
Samantha Harvey’s characterisation is excellent. Both central women are complex and I feel that Harvey has really got under their skins. The narrator regularly questions herself and her motives, and those of Nina, and I feel this can only be done convincingly when an author truly knows her characters.
I definitely get more of a sense of the unnamed narrator than Butterfly, which leads me to think about the fact we don’t hear her voice at all, apart from an imagined one, and I wonder what she would say given the chance. How would her version of events differ? And the narrator herself touches on how she imagines scenes for Butterfly, and I enjoyed her musings on her own unreliability. She acknowledges right at the beginning of the novel that she hasn’t been entirely truthful in what she’s written up to this point – how she may conjure a scenario specifically to divulge certain information to Nina, for example. It makes me question a lot of things going forward.
‘Isn’t the admittance of a lie more honest, anyway, than a truth arrived at through editing?’ (p34)
Dear Thief isn’t simply a novel about friendship – there are a lot of ideas in this book: love (romantic, platonic, parenthood), life and death, time, our true selves, ageing, happiness. These are presented in the narrator’s meandering letter as she explores her life then and now, and her and Butterfly’s friendship. I particularly like the following:
‘Things are rarely seen without being looked for,’ Teddy said with that palladian, harmlessly arch tone that sounded strange coming from somebody whose nappies I had once changed. Yet I respect him and he shows himself routinely worthy of it in the things he knows or thinks or feels, for example when he insisted that we try to see the planets, and the sky in general, in reflection in the water, because a sky without a reflection is just the sky in profile.’ (p29)
I spent over half my life waiting for the accumulation of happiness and then I realised that it doesn’t accumulate at all, it just occurs here and there, like snow that falls and never settles. Not the drifts that you and I imagined we would plough ourselves into, but instead gently, opportunistically, holding one’s tongue out to catch the flakes’. (p74)
The narrator’s ideas are presented to Butterfly, and the reader, as fully formed thoughts. I’m writing this post a little while after I finished reading the novel, and it’s occurred to me that my inability to link some of the ideas back to the friendship or the betrayal implies that the narrator hasn’t got anyone to explore these ideas with, so she’s spilling it out in this letter to a friend she once had. She’s lonely. The book isn’t about the friendship necessarily, it’s about her.
The form of a letter is an interesting one, and it’s quite a claustrophobic account of an intense friendship. In this way, Harvey has done an excellent job of creating this atmosphere. However, the letter didn’t feel entirely believable to me. I can’t say exactly why this is – perhaps it’s a lot to do with the voice. It felt very practised and rehearsed; it was very measured. Some of this may be that the betrayal happened many years ago so there is no longer that raw feeling from the narrator. There is a distance, but this is to be expected with the form of a letter, I suppose.
Dear Thief is beautifully written. Harvey’s use of language is precise and inventive, capturing an idea or feeling wonderfully.
‘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 the mystery’ (p13)
For all of its beauty, complex characters and interesting ideas however, I did find reading it a bit of a slog. Ordinarily, I love character-driven stories which I suppose would be called ‘slow-burning’. But this is too slow for me. The writing, beautiful as it is, exacerbates this and paired with the fact that the novel is so packed with ideas, made it one I was glad to finish.
Dear Thief is a complex book and one that I don’t feel I can fully articulate my thoughts or feelings on. I don’t love it, but I recognise that it’s a clever novel, and one that’s taken a lot of skill to produce.
Have you read Dear Thief? What did you think?