The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.

Reviewing “Dear Thief” by Samantha Harvey


You can tell me you’re angry.  You can use your words, hearing yourself say whatever you feel you need to say.  You can look at me or not look at me, giving me ample opportunity to take all of you in as I welcome your abuse.  You can show me how your physical body reacts to your own words.

But to me it is empty because your words do not truly reveal what you feel.  For that I would have to see your writing.  In your writing, you can explore the myriad avenues of emotions in all directions, simultaneously.  In your writing you hold nothing back.  You could share an intimate secret while standing naked in front of me, tears streaming down, and it would still not compare to the volume of emotion you keep locked inside.

I pick at your locks all the time.  Inspecting its security, testing possible combinations, weighing its heft in my own hands… until you share a portion of yourself.  And you probably offer this gift out of annoyance or exhaustion.

You can offer a portion because you know most of it; the most precious parts remain a secret.  And no amount of picking and manipulating will get you to reveal it all.

For everything to be known you would have to willing let it.  You release or not release on your terms.  In your time.

And until then, I will have to wait.  There is no other choice.


This is an immediate response to Samantha Harvey’s book Dear Thief.

The novel is a long letter written by a middle-aged woman to her childhood friend, from whom she has not heard, is almost 20 years.  She believes Nina may be in her Lithuanian homeland but she has no way of knowing.  She may even be dead.  But she writes the letter nonetheless.

The narrator is nameless and her friend is Nina or Butterfly, a nickname given to her by her nameless friend’s son Nicholas.

The letter is broken up over several months.  She sprinkles in her present goings-on with the remembrance of things passed.

The idea of the letter came to her suddenly and over these months she has a lot of things to get off her chest.  She tells Butterfly things she never said to her.  She writes down their history and Butterfly’s imagined present situation.

Butterfly, it appears, floated into her life one day and then for the next 20 years, entered and exited abruptly, with no explanation, until exiting for good, it appears.

Whenever she was around she was the passive catalyst for adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  And whenever she was away, her essence permeated the remaining souls she had touched.

This is not a ghost story, but it is haunting.  This is not a mystical story, but it is spiritual.  This is not a linear crime story, but it is suspenseful.

The epistolary narrator has been left with so many questions she needs to write to the one person who could give her the answers.  Why were you wearing my husband’s purple pants one day?  Why did my son travel off to Lithuania?  Why did you wear that damned shawl every day for as long as I knew you?  What was it about the Upanishads that captivated you?  Who made up the game Chair, you or me?  Why did you leave the first time?  The second?  The fourth?  Where did you go?  What did you do?

Why did everything you do force me to make a decision, which usually became one of indecision and made everything worse?  Or was everything worse before and you made it better?

Why can’t I get you out of mind?  Why won’t you let me go?

In writing out her thoughts, the nameless narrator explores more parts of herself she wouldn’t otherwise explore.  She comes to conclusions about herself on her own, often using the absent Butterfly as her sounding board.  Dictating her pain to her erstwhile friend.

Samantha Harvey’s words are not so much about telling a story as they are telling a soul.  Her writing is thoughtful and begs to be read aloud.  Many times I interrupted my wife with another gorgeous passage, feeling with the narrator as I spoke.

Then, just as I had made peace with Yanni’s wife, I became angry with Lara.  I thought, how can Lara escape her religion?  I remembered her phrase, about carrying a sack of stones.  A sack of stones that can be picked up and put down, dipped into as and when.  But religion is not like this; the weight of God is upon those who believe, a burden from above, and love is the shouldering of this burden, the glad acceptance of it.  Lara wants to think there is nothing higher than her head, and that she can orchestrate her own salvation through her acts.  Next she will become a humanist, without realizing that humanism is to a Christian what methadone is to a heroin addict, a way of weaning off.  She will begin to believe in humans instead of God because it is hard to give up believing all at once.  And then, when humans fail her, she will become a spiritualist and decide she can flee this illusory world like a bird sliding obliquely off the screen, slip through its gauze, as if religion’s sole purpose is to make escape artists of us.”

The writing has a poetic cadence and lures you deeper into philosophical self-awareness unaware that there is something ever more deep in this insidious relationship.

I am reminded of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, Tim O’Brien’s In The Lake of The Woods, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.  All so mysterious and beautiful and exploratory without trying to be clever or sentimental.

“I contemplated fury.  To be truthful, I was too limp with grief on that particular day.  I suppose going to stay in Mrs. Ellis’ back room was a form of fury, which I justified as curiosity; it was only a month after my father’s death when I went there and, then I think back to it, I probably wasn’t in a good state for such things.  After a night of no sleep, of listening to the animal moans from the couple opposite, it was the breakfast that finally did make me furious.  Bread as thin and cheap as the blankets, and a toaster.  Some margarine, no jam, certainly no eggs.  I had never in my life been further away from buttery comfort, from solace.  I think Mr. Ellis did not inherit his mother’s care for the human soul through a soft honeyed yolk.  I took, with chilly shaking hands, a piece of bread from the mean array on the dresser and said aloud to the empty room, Is this it?  And then louder, screwing the bread up in my palm like an old love letter:  Can this really be it?”


4 comments on “Reviewing “Dear Thief” by Samantha Harvey

  1. The Lost Daisy
    February 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Lost Daisy and commented:
    Sounds like a very interesting thought-provoking book! Will check it out!


    • Andrew Davis
      February 8, 2015

      Thank you for your comment! I’ll be interested to hear what you thought of it.


  2. hassanizzo
    February 17, 2015

    That was a lovely review, I’ll put this on the list of books I’ve seen you write about that I now want to read.


    • Andrew Davis
      February 17, 2015

      thanks, brother. reading good writing makes me want to write.


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This entry was posted on February 8, 2015 by in Book Review, Novels and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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