BOOK REVIEW: GARTH GREENWELL – CLEANNESS

Today, it’s a new review of a book I recently read and loved. It’s Cleanness by Garth Greenwell.

I’m quite new to Greenwell’s writing but when I saw the cover and read the blurb of Cleanness, I was immediately intrigued. So, I ordered his first book What Belongs To You first and loved it so of course I pre-ordered a signed copy of Cleanness. But first… what’s it all about? Here’s the blurb:

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.

In this atmosphere of disquiet, 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. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with a younger man opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.

Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared ‘an instant classic’ by the New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, Greenwell transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.

I’m going to quickly talk about What Belongs To You and then I’ll go further into my review for Cleanness. When I ordered my copy of What Belongs To You, I didn’t realise how short it was! I started it immediately and straight away, I fell in love with his writing. I loved the intimacy of it, the closeness of it all, the characters, the way he wrote about desire and sex in such a bold and beautiful way. I really loved it and I was super excited to get into my copy of Cleanness.

Cleanness is an extension of the character and world of What Belongs To You and I loved being back in the world of his writing and his characters. I think I even enjoyed this more than the previous one – I was a lot more invested in the story and I felt more connected to the themes and ideas in the book. Greenwell writes so beautifully about sex – it is intimate, delicate and it’s also due to the style of the writing with no speech marks, long paragraphs – creating the intimacy even more profound.

One of my favourite things about the book(s) and his writing is how he writes about sex so realistic, so profound and it’s the best sex I’ve read in literature where it isn’t frivolous or just for the sake of it. I haven’t read a book that explores queer and gay sex in the way that Greenwell writes and explores. 

“Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”

Cleanness is one of my favourite books of the year so far – I just completely inhaled it and I didn’t realise how much I would love it, too. I love how he writes about identity, desire, intimacy, sexuality, sensuality, power, connection and longing for a connection – the core of what makes us human.

I can’t wait to read what Greenwell writes next. Also, there’s this brilliant article from The Guardian where he talks about writing sex which I know I’m going to turn back to again and again. You can read it here. There’s also a brilliant episode of the podcast Literary Fiction with Garth Greenwell where he talks more about intimacy and the book, Cleanness which I loved and it’s a great companion.

Have you read Cleanness? Or What Belongs To You? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you,

Corey.

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