Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey, book review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jonathan Cape, £16.99. » Order at the discounted price of £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

"I wish that when I wrote about it I hadn't got so carried away with how it was, and had written more about how it is." This is from a letter the unnamed narrator of Dear Thief writes to her lost friend, a letter written over six months, between December 2001 and June 2002, that constitutes the narrative. Samantha Harvey's third novel is an account of a friendship that started over three decades ago, when the two were growing up in Shropshire, and ended abruptly one winter evening in 1985, when they parted ways: one friend stayed at her house with her son, the other was rushed off by her friend's husband and never seen again.

Nina, or Butterfly, cuts an unusual figure from the start: she comes from a Lithuanian family, has strange ideas and tastes. Later in life, she moves "from god to god and man to man, with prayers and needles", hellbent on self-destruction.

When Butterfly arrives on her friend's doorstep after a long absence, at a loose end, she is invited to stay for as long as she needs to.

As tension builds between the guest and her friend's husband, we know what to expect next. The narrator hints that the double betrayal didn't come as a complete surprise, and yet, being so close to Butterfly, she couldn't help letting the events unfold as she knew they would. Seventeen years later, she comes to realise that "intimacy is a form of distance [as] you become sharply aware of the other's existence only in order to avoid it".

Harvey manages to trick the reader into believing that the writer simply wants to recount certain events of her life. But then it transpires the reason behind the letter lies deeper. Inventing characters and stories, says the narrator, is more rewarding: "How do you tell the difference between a person made of flesh and one made of words?"

At the end of the book, we are not told whether the protagonist is going to reunite with her husband, or find Butterfly – the novel is too subtle for happy endings. What we do know is that by writing this letter she has got closer to finding her own self.