In an atmosphere of disquiet in Sofia, Bulgaria, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past.
Greenwell displays an extraordinary skill at handling time ... part of Sofia’s allure is that it is disintegrating, as Bulgaria itself is failing ... Greenwell’s version of Sofia sometimes allows him to isolate his characters in a densely made monochrome. He can remove them from any natural hinterland, cover them in mystery and then allow them to emerge into a scrupulously modulated clarity ... Greenwell’s book is a sort of wistful paean to the place where his protagonist lived in uneasy exile, or learned to grow up, or both ... bravura writing ... While he writes about sex graphically, Greenwell uses a crisp style to disguise the fact that he is really attempting to chart the characters’ complicated emotional needs ... The reader begins each new story with concern for the main character; he is like one of those young men in 19th-century French fiction setting out to receive his sentimental education.
[Greenwell's] mouths do not kiss or meet, but tend to greedily suck at each other, tasting themselves. Windpipes are taut, anuses are silky, flesh is relentlessly sniffed, and pages are heavy with sweat ... The instability of desire, the uncertainty of who we are — these are Greenwell’s major themes. ‘[W]e can never be sure of what we want,’ the narrator says, echoing R., ‘I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.’ This is not just a concept — the rattling and opaque machinery of desire — but a formal condition. Commas and semicolons conspire to form breathless strings of clauses that fold back on themselves, and a total absence of quotation marks in dialogue often leaves the reader groping: Who is speaking? What do they really want? Can we ever understand? ... In these stories, Greenwell does not really analyse or anatomise desire; he narrates its unfolding: the play-by-play shifts of power and lust; the coiling of memory, suffering, and pleasure. It amounts to one of the more stunning accounts of sex in literature ... We should be grateful for the narrator’s surfeit. There is already enough coolness and restraint in contemporary fiction. Many writers want to affect or feel on the page, stroking themselves; Cleanness does the alternative job of arguing for sweet excess. Greenwell doesn’t indulge in sap but makes a claim for it: the baroque prose, the long switchback Jamesian sentences, the indiscriminate tenderness toward all things — humans, dogs, ruins. It’s an instructive potency. One puts the book down, and the light feels a bit hotter and the heart stings more sharply.
... incandescent ... Anyone who read Greenwell’s first novel, What Belongs to You (2016), knows that his writing about sex is altogether scorching. You pick his novels up with asbestos mitts, and set them down upon trivets to protect your table from heat damage ... There’s a moral quality to these extended sessions. In bed is where Greenwell’s men work out and reveal the essences of their personalities ... Carnal moments are accelerants; they’re where Greenwell’s existential and political themes are underlined, then set ablaze ... a better, richer, more confident novel. You intuit its seriousness and grace from its first pages. It’s a novel in search of ravishment ... Greenwell is a sensitive writer about the student-teacher relationship ... Greenwell has an uncanny gift, one that comes along rarely. Every detail in every scene glows with meaning. It’s as if, while other writers offer data, he is providing metadata ... This novel’s second half is not quite the equal of its first. Some scenes end rather than resolve. Greenwell is a brooder. You begin to wonder how his humorlessness will wear over time ... Yet there are no failures of equilibrium. This writer’s sentences are so dazzlingly fresh that it as if he has thrown his cape in the street in front of each one. Greenwell offers restraint in service of release. He catches you up so effortlessly that you feel you are in the hands of one of those animals that anesthetizes you before devouring you.