Released: September 2014
Proposed to readers as a series of one-sided letters written by a woman to her absent friend between 2001 and 2002, Dear Thief is better to be read as one ‘super-long letter’ (as the Murakami epigraph suggests). The two friends have not communicated in years, due in large part to a misdemeanour that occurred when the friend, Nina, otherwise known as Butterfly, was invited to live in the family home with the narrator, her husband and young son.
When we meet the narrator, she is working with the elderly in a London care home, separated (but not divorced) from her husband, living alone as her son has just departed on a trip to Lithuania. The letters are attempts to reconnect with Butterfly, and to understand her with the hindsight of her fifteen-year absence.
A powerful presence wherever she goes, Nina always manages to provoke a reaction from people she encounters – from professions of love at first sight to utter bewilderment. She is flighty and independent, her ‘buoyant’ moods rare and ‘unnerving’, she drifts from place to place with no intention of living a conformist life. Despite this though, there is a distance between this intense character and readers – we never hear from Nina and even memories belonging to her are appropriated by the narrator: ‘Though unsentimental by nature, a memory comes to you . . . Your mother and father are burying [your brother] in the sand and it makes you screech with laughter.’
Her character seems ethereal and unreal, an enigmatic spectre who haunts the narrative, like she haunts the narrator’s memories and marriage. Perhaps Butterfly doesn’t even exist, just a figment of the narrator’s imagination – without her own voice, it’s difficult to say. We hear that Butterfly may have been living in a hut in a forest, or in a desert, somewhere in Lithuania, or perhaps somewhere far far away. The truth is unknowable, and can only be reached by a lot of guesswork.
This book is about the idiosyncrasies that make up a person, the memories people hold with them, and the individuals we choose to let in to our private little worlds – ideas profoundly examined in a scene during the early months of the narrator’s courtship with her future husband, Nicholas. A stage light designer by trade, Nicholas invites the narrator to reveal to him her dating and sexual history in the literal spotlight in an abandoned auditorium.
We are all affected in strange yet fundamental ways by others. Sometimes our entire lives become entwined with another person’s, but the basic truth is still that we will never understand who that other person is, or why they make the decisions they do. The person stood right next to you. The man or woman you share your bed with. The friend you’ve grown up alongside.
The tone of the narrator’s writing is bitter but indifferent, regretful yet forgiving. The narrator may meet Nina again, or she may not; she may receive a new postcard or lengthy letter in return, but would that heal or worsen their friendship? Ultimately Samantha Harvey’s prose is exquisite; remorseful moments can also be hopeful, and endings can also seem like beginnings.