Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey (audiobook)

In brief: One night, our narrator starts writing to a long-lost friend about day to day life and what drove them apart.

The good: It’s an interesting format that meanders between the mundane events of daily life and things more shocking.

The not-so-good: Easy to lose interest while listening, but hard to pick up again as the conversation has generally moved to another topic.

Why I chose it: On the longlist for this year’s Baileys Prize.

Year: 2014

Duration: 8 hours 50 minutes (book is 272 pages)

Narrator: Anna Bentinck

Publisher: Random House

Setting: England

My rating: 6.5 out of 10

Dear Thief is an odd book, one that I have had extreme difficulty in making up my mind as to whether I like it or not. Another question I had was if this book was more enjoyable in audiobook format than print form. Even though I’ve been deliberating over this for nearly a week, I’m still wavering. There are definitely parts of the story that I found interesting and enjoyable, but then the narrator (of the story, not of the audio) would change tack and I’d be left wondering if she would ever get back to that plot point. I think the audiobook is more natural as a format in the way the story unfolds – it really is like someone is pouring out their heart to you, but lacks the ability to go over certain sections again. (I listen to my audiobooks mainly while driving, so rewind is not really an option if I still want to be alive at the end of my journey).

The thief referred to in the title is Nina, or Butterfly as she is later known. Our unnamed narrator starts writing to her one winter’s night just to simply answer a question. She doesn’t know where Butterfly is, nor does she think she cares. But the writing process is cathartic and the author of the letter digs into her memories of Nina/Butterfly, revealing pain and hurt as a long lasting friendship dissolves into bitterness. In between this, there’s reflections on the author’s other relationships with her husband and son. There’s the interactions with the owner of the corner shop and wisdom on the loss that occurs with ageing as she works in a nursing home. It’s all bundled in together, jumping from the mundane to Butterfly’s drug use and betrayal. It’s like a bag of mixed nuts – you’re never quite sure what’s going to come out of the bag next. It’s this that makes the story interesting, just waiting for the next revelation about Butterfly but it was also the story’s downfall for me – the waiting for the next string of plot thread that might not ever come.

I think one of the strengths of Dear Thief is that the story doesn’t meet the traditional definition of narrative – beginning, middle and end. However, the lack of resolution may be annoying for some. I thought that would be what annoyed me (as a scientist, I like Results!), but surprisingly, it didn’t. I felt that the way the narrative unfolded prepared me for the realisation that things wouldn’t be tied up neatly or come to any definite conclusions. The writing is beautiful, and the narrator’s retelling of recent and past events was very interesting. It was just the way that her thoughts skipped from one topic to another that bothered me, in a stream of consciousness that only she could make sense of. I did drift off into thinking about other things at times (probably traffic and its lack of movement) which didn’t help me to keep my hold on the plot. The sentiment expressed through the writing was fantastic, from happiness to bitter anger and Anna Bentinck’s narration jerked me back into the book several times.

I would have loved to have heard Nina/Butterfly’s view on what happened. But I suspect, like the narrator, that she’s not around to tell it. While I can’t say that I loved Dear Thief, I would try another of Samantha Harvey’s novels. I like that she’s taken a chance and structured her novel outside the norms and the writing is beautiful. But I think I need to try reading her in addition to listening before I make up my mind if she’s an author for me or not.


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