Book review: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

in a strange room damon galgutIn a Strange Room was originally published as three travel memoirs in the Paris Review but was published as a novel and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.

The protagonist (“Damon”) recounts, from a distance of some years, three experiences of travelling, in each of which another person dominates his thoughts. He forms an awkward and spiky connection with a mysterious man in Greece, he befriends a group of Europeans in southern Africa, and becomes infatuated with one of them, despite lacking a common language. Some years later he accompanies a woman friend on what is supposed to be a therapeutic trip to India, unaware until it is too late that managing her psychosis demands more than a well-intentioned friend.

Galgut captures brilliantly the strange rhythm of travel and its paradoxes. You escape routine but the journey takes on a structure of its own. Mundane details – what to eat, where to sleep, how to change money or secure a visa – take up excessive amounts of energy. You are endlessly fascinated with everything you see, willing to create incident from the most banal detail. Even the drudgery, poverty and suffering of others becomes spectacle, empathy either absent or performative. You are detached, always passing through.

Through Greece and southern Africa, the protagonist sees much but his focus is inward, on his companions and on himself. The people and places he sees are largely wallpaper for his personal dramas, the difficulties he faces arguably self-inflicted. In India the situation is reversed. His experience with his friend is objectively traumatic and now their lives become other people’s theatre.

But who is the protagonist? Galgut plays with point of view, as he also did in the Booker winning The Promise. The protagonist is generally “he”, but at times becomes “I”. The authorial voice at times intervenes to comment on what the character is feeling, what the author recalls of his  feelings, how the two conflict. He highlights missing details in his understanding of this fictional character Damon who is also a version of the person he once was, giving insights not just into the creative process, but into our own fuzzy relationship with our younger selves.

I loved the hypnotic quality of Galgut’s prose. It’s terse, simple, but somehow intense. I’m not quite sure how he does it. He doesn’t use fancy imagery or elaborate phrasing but he draws you in – you become bound up in the character’s obsessions, his sense of being trapped, with his travelling companions and in his own thoughts.

Since reading The Good Doctor I’ve been reading Damon Galgut novels hoping to recapture that feeling of immersion in a dark, compelling place. Now, with In a Strange Room I feel I’ve come close.

View In a Strange Room on Goodreads

Want a different perspective?

Much as I enjoyed this novel, I couldn’t help smiling at this review of In a Strange Room by Ron Charles, who argues “I’ve had it with the exquisitely crafted sighs of depressed men.”

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