Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

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Dear Thief Longlisted for 2015 Baileys Prize

Five words from the blurb: woman, writing, friend, past, revealing

The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, was an outstanding book. It was beautifully written and packed with emotion. Her second novel, All is Song, was dull in comparison. I tried reading Dear Thief on its release, but abandoned it because it felt more like her second novel than her first.  Dear Thief was recently longlisted for the Baileys Prize so I decide to give it another try. Unfortunately my initial assessment was correct. It is a lot better than All is Song, but not in the same league as her debut.

Dear Thief takes the form of one long letter from a women in her fifties to a friend she knew thirty years ago. There are wonderful descriptions of their childhood in Shropshire and these are contrasted with life in London. Harvey brilliantly observes the natural world and interactions between different people. I can’t fault the writing on a paragraph level at all:

I suppose the world is constantly producing things of wonderment, every moment, at every scale, and one time in every million or so our minds will be such that we will be open to seeing it. To see the silver effervescing of that dust was as beautiful a sight as any mountain or waterfall; but then, when I saw it, I was in love and as happy as a human being can be. Of course this helped. The world is heavily changed by the way we perceive it; in all my reticence and doubt, this is one thing even I haven’t been able to dispute.

Unfortunately the writing lacked emotion. Even scenes that should have been packed with feeling were tempered by meandering thoughts.

Very little happens throughout the book and I found that there was so much foreshadowing I knew most of the plot before it was revealed. If you can enjoy a book simply for the beautiful writing then you’ll appreciate it, but I prefer a bit of emotion or plot.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a stunning novel. The Writes of Woman

It has so many merits and so many good things about it yet I still don’t feel right saying I truly enjoyed it because I don’t think I did. Plastic Rosaries

…a most unusual book, alive with matters of spirituality and philosophy. Shiny New Books


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13 Comments

  1. I’m pleased to see another review which seems to get what I felt from Dear Thief. It’s no mean feat to maintain a single voice in the form that she does for so long but…I felt it lacked emotion as you say too.
    Thanks for the mention :) .

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Yes, yours was the only other non-gushing review I could find. Everyone else seems to love it – there is even a newspaper article http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/11470185/Why-great-novels-dont-get-noticed-now.html which caused even more people to rave about it on twitter. Shame we don’t seem to see what everyone else sees!

  2. Ah yes I saw that article too and didn’t quite get it but there we go – I do feel like I’m missing out a bit when everyone I come across seems to love it – oh well!

  3. Pity! I do prefer a book whose plot carries me along.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, Sometimes good writing is enough, but I’m afraid the subject matter of this one bored me :-(

  4. JC Sutcliffe says:

    Oh no! I was looking forward to this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      JC Sutcliffe, You may well like it – it seems to be dividing opinion!

  5. David says:

    One word from your review: Meandering! The writing in ‘Dear Thief’ is undeniably good, but the things you mention – lack of emotional connection, the signposting, and yes, the meandering introspection – meant that whilst I was initially seduced by the narrative voice I ended up being bored rigid for the majority of the novel’s length and struggled to finish it. Ultimately it was one of those stories that I couldn’t quite see the necessity for, nor why the author felt it was worth telling.

    I do disagree with you on one point though: I haven’t read Harvey’s debut but I actually really liked ‘All is Song’ and thought it was infinitely superior to ‘Dear Thief’ – the same quality of writing (beautiful if rather slowly paced) but coupled to a strong plot, questions about philosophy, and biblical allusions that I kept mulling over long after I’d turned the final page.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, It’s good to see that you agree with me on this one! I like your point about why the author thought this story was worth telling – I think that is the big problem with it. It feels more like a writing exercise than anything she has real passion about.

      I think you should read ‘The Wilderness’ and then tell me how good ‘All Is Song’ is. The problem is that ‘The Wilderness’ is a modern masterpiece and everything else just feels poor in comparison. Perhaps I just didn’t appreciate the biblical references in ‘All is Song’ because I’m not strong in that subject? Nevermind, at least we can agree that ‘Dear Thief’ isn’t her best work!

  6. Interesting that her debut was your favorite. It’s always kind of disappointing when that happens! Sorry to hear this one didn’t live up to your expectations.

    I haven’t read anything by Harvey, though now I’m intrigued by The Wilderness. However, I can say that while beautiful writing is high on my novel wishlist, I too generally need *something* else to keep my interest.

    1. Jackie says:

      Erin, I often find I prefer debuts – they have a raw passion that is often lacking in follow up books. I hope you decide to read The Wilderness – it is an impressive book!

  7. nomadreader says:

    This book was my first experience with Harvey, but I’ve been meaning to read Wilderness for quite some time. I think I ended up giving this one four stars simply because of the writing, but I may change my mind before I write my review. I agree with your idea about the writing lacking emotion. I’ve been trying to explain that it felt odd that the novel is this long letter because I can’t quite imagine someone actually writing a letter like that. I can imagine it being started, but to take the time to do it as she does in the book seems somehow inauthentic. I’m still pondering it though, so I’ll give Harvey that.

    1. Jackie says:

      nomadreader, You’re right! It didn’t feel authentic to me either. It is hard to explain why, as there is nothing wrong with the writing on a surface level – it just didn’t have that emotional power/realism behind it. I look forward to reading your review once you’ve had some more time to think about it!

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