One of the novels on the longlist for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015, Samantha Harvey’s entry Dear Thief offers a simple yet beautifully written exploration of memories and character. The plot of this book is rather basic and largely uneventful. It is written as a long letter from a woman to a long lost friend. As the writer’s thoughts, emotions and memories are poured out in this letter, past events are revealed which have led to the two friends losing touch.
Dear Thief is first and foremost a very intimate and thoughtfully written novel, just as you might expect a letter between two friends to be. Harvey is very successful in creating this intimacy and admiration between the writer and the intended recipient, Nina, or ‘Butterfly’ as she is often called. The feelings of intimacy and tenderness as Harvey writes come from a minimal amount of dialogue and a handful of closely related characters.
Laden with beautiful imagery and Harvey’s skilfully technical use of language, this book gives, if nothing else, the sheer pleasure of reading a carefully constructed piece of writing. Dear Thief is slowly paced. The events are not written chronologically but are presented as they appear in the mind of the letter’s writer. These events are written as if Nina’s friend is saying “Do you remember when this happened? Do you remember the time when…” However, the narrator herself is often unsure and unreliable in retelling their past, stating that she doesn’t quite remember how things happened: ‘You might have also said something like…I have a feeling you didn’t answer…’ Although this strengthens the notion of the book as a letter, it becomes rather repetitive and distracting.
The exploration of Nina’s character through the eyes of the narrator is among the more interesting aspects of Dear Thief. At first the memories of Butterfly seem full of admiration. She is portrayed as a strangely beautiful and spiritual mess of a woman who recites poetry, discusses Hinduism and philosophy and never takes off her creamy shawl. However Harvey does well to slowly reveal more and more and bring forth something much darker and helpless in her. It is this character which is rightfully the primary focus of the novel.
It is when the narrator reflects back on the more philosophical and religious discussions between her and her friend that the most memorable gems of Harvey’s writing can be seen, for example, when the concept of the Hindu trinity is introduced and the power of the number three: “with two lines you can only create two lines, but with three you can create a shape”. If there were more discussions explaining the thoughts and ideas behind these characters as opposed to the events which took place between them then perhaps this novel would prove to be a little more engaging and interesting.
As mentioned before, the plot is very basic and when Harvey eventually does reveal to the reader the reasons for the separation between Nina and the narrator they come as no surprise. There is no feeling of a big, shocking revelation- if that is indeed what Harvey had in mind. Instead the turning point in the narrative can be foreseen well in advance. It is something which seems to be brewing quite early on. Dear Thief is a novel which may not appeal to everyone. Harvey’s writing at face-value is enjoyable to read. There is evidence of thought, depth and emotion in the technical aspects of her writing. However, this is perhaps at the expense of a more intriguing and fast-paced plot.
Hamzah M. Hussain