Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room

I was an admirer of Damon Galgut’s last novel The Impostor, and was disappointed when it wasn’t longlisted for the Booker Prize two years ago (particularly when you look at some of the books that were). So why didn’t I snap up his new book as soon as it was published? Why didn’t I read it, in fact, until it was longlisted for the Booker?

In a Strange Room first appeared as three stories published individually in the Paris Review; and that was the reason why I initially avoided it. Not really a novel at all, right? Added to that, the stories are autobiographical: “the project was to recall, as honestly and truthfully as I could, three journeys that I’ve taken at different points in my life.” So, not really fiction at all, right? Wrong, says Galgut: “memory is fiction.” (Here, I think of James Salter, and his novel Light Years, “a book of pure recall,” inspired by Jean Renoir’s assertion that the only important things in life are those we remember. Galgut agrees: “What you don’t remember never happened.”)

Galgut was right and I was wrong. In a Strange Room may not, in my view, stand up to The Impostor for complexity – it didn’t send me off into spirals of thought on every page – but it is nonetheless superb, an original and inspiring work of art. Even the simplicity is artful: the reader is undistracted, the experiences unmediated. Galgut achieves this with an unusual narrative technique (“I am a spectator of my own behaviour”): he exists on the page both as character (in third person) and narrator (in first), so we have sentences like, “Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end, and dreams about, no, I don’t remember his dreams.” The first story is set in 1993, the last one just a few years ago, and the “I” appears more and more frequently as the book progresses: the memories are becoming clearer, the person described experiencing the events is closer to the person recalling them. It is a lovely technique, eloquent and economical.

I knew, anyway, that Galgut was a fine writer, and from the beginning of the narrative I felt myself to be in safe hands. In the first story – sorry, first part of the novel – ‘The Follower’, the character Damon finds himself in an unequal and undeclared power struggle with a German man he meets while travelling in Greece, who then comes to Damon’s home to explore South Africa. Travel is the ostensible theme of In a Strange Room, which takes its title from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

(I owe to Will Rycroft’s review of this book the knowledge that the next line of Faulkner’s, not quoted here, is, significantly for Damon, “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not.”) The German, Reiner, is bold, proud, one moment intimate and the next standoffish: “He will not speak either, but in him silence is power. Unlike me, unlike me.” There appears to Damon to be a charge of eroticism between them. Reiner is travelling, however, to spend some time deciding whether or not to stay with a woman. Damon, “not a traveller by nature,” has more existential reasons. “He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety … Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details.”

As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.

Damon both despises and envies Reiner for his self-involvement (he “has no interest in what is happening around him”) and the impression he gives of knowing love: “I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.”

In the second story, ‘The Lover’, it seems that Damon will have reciprocation for his love of a fellow traveller, a young man named Jerome. For me this was the weakest section of the book, and most interesting not when it was describing the journeys they take together, but when Damon is reflecting on the permeable border between memory and portrayal, and the limits of his fiction:

Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words … it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.

The third part, ‘The Guardian’, shows Damon looking after an old friend Anna, who had “a future full of impressive possibilities” but labours under some form of depression or personality disorder which has her “losing the plot, living in fast motion, speeding along.” Damon struggles to cope with “this thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.” The depiction of Anna is gripping, urgent and real as she heads for “her toxic, terminal rapture.”

I have surprised myself in writing this review by having nothing negative to say about In a Strange Room. At the time I felt lightly disappointed by it, largely because of its apparent straightforwardness, and the concern that with a tweak of expectations, some of Galgut’s observations might not seem out of place in a Paulo Coelho book (“There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it’s a long way from home”). Yet in writing about it, revisiting it, I have only praise. This is a wonderful book. It is an odd experience, to see how the processing of your responses can shift your thoughts – or what you thought were your thoughts.


  1. Great review. It is a wonderful book, and it will surely make the shortlist. If it doesn’t, then…normality shall reign.

  2. This is the one book on the list I hadn’t been planning to read but now am (which means I guess that the Booker list has done for me what it was meant to do, persuaded me to read a book I otherwise wouldn’t have).

    It does seem fairly straightforward, but the prose seems so elegant. I was concerned about the Coelho element you bring out, but clearly it’s not dominant so shouldn’t be an issue.

    I’ve not read Faulkner, I’d have missed that reference entirely.

  3. An excellent review John. Since finishing the book earlier this week I have been struggling to get my words to reveal how I truly feel about this book, and so far it isn’t quite happening. However, you do it eloquently here. (I will try not to simply cut and paste 🙂 ).

  4. The transition from third person to first person sounds interesting, if it’s done well and unobtrusively (from your review, It seems that’s the case.) The Coelho issue could be more problematic, but I’m starting to identify something like a ‘Coelho syndrome’, where any written phrase that might resemble some kind of yearning truism provokes a nausea reflex that’s perhaps out of proportion with the crime.

    Picador published a book earlier this year – Dr Ragab’s Universal Language – that I managed to read in its entirety without once ceasing to wonder whether or not it was too Coelhoey. Coelhish. Coelhike.

    I think I’ve got The Impostor knocking about somewhere, unread. I should probably get to it.

  5. This review makes me want to read The Imposter. I already wanted to read this one as, from the reviews, seems to be my likely favorite of the Booker candidates. If I can find the time, I will read both. Otherwise….I think I am going with The Imposter first. Not that my handwringing here really matters.

    What I found interesting is your reaction, the book growing from disappointment to “wonderful book” merely through the process of sifting your thoughts. I wonder if (having made similar post-read readjustments myself), sometimes we talk ourselves into liking a book because in our post-read analysis, we couldn’t find words for that part of the experience we didn’t quite like. Or, put differently, maybe all the ingredients seem great, but they didn’t come together into a wonderful stew, only when we start listing ingredients, it does seem like it should be delicious. Put still differently, do we talk ourselves into liking some books because we have a hard time saying what was wrong with it?

    That’s more a general question sparked by this review rather than a considered suggestion that that is what happened here. The “surprised myself” is actually the phrase that made me think you didn’t have that great of an experience but there was nothing tangibly “wrong” with the book (and a great many things “right” with it).

    At any rate, I did enjoy the review and, whatever your experience, your review only adds to the likelihood I will read it (except for the fact that you pose, for me, The Imposter as an alternative).

  6. I often find that writing about a book changes my opinion of it, sometimes completely: a novel that I haven’t enjoyed or even disliked slowly reveals itself as I riddle out what I think of it. Conversely a novel that I have gobbled and enjoyed shows itself to be less interesting that I imagined. I think it is this, more than anything else, that keeps me blogging. If I don’t write it down I might never know what I truly thought.

  7. If I don’t write it down I might never know what I truly thought.

    Succinctly put, Victoria. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Kerry, I think in this case the adjustment in my view of the book was not so much because I couldn’t articulate what I felt at the time were its weaknesses – which was that it was more straightforward in my view, and less complex, than The Impostor – and more that I found my objections didn’t really come to mind when I started looking over the book again in detail. I haven’t ignored them, it’s just that they seem unimportant in the overall analysis.

  8. I definitely agree that blogging forces me to think about the books I read more thoroughly than I typically would have otherwise. And this thinking about them does often change my post-read perception, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. I do wonder whether, for me, the shift is entirely justified or partly an unwarranted result of cataloguing the memorably good points and memorably bad points.

    Thanks for responding and, you make a great point that you did not ignore the lack of complexity of In a Strange Room, only felt other points were more important. Perhaps I should read reviews more carefully too….

    (Good points Victoria).

  9. I don’t tend to find my view changes due to blogging, though I do often find unconsidered angles, but I do find that the knowledge I’ll be blogging and the act itself both make me engage more thoroughly with a book.

    Which isn’t always to its benefit, but it’s part of what keeps me blogging.

  10. Great to read your thoughts on this as Galgut is also a favorite of mine and I had been looking forward to reading this about five months ago and then it slipped my mind (and therefore didn’t exist).

  11. I’ve commented in more detail on this at KfC’s blog, but just wanted to repeat my enthusiasm here John. So: what a great book, and what a deserving winner this would be. I think the key comment in your review is “apparent straightforwardness” – it’s gripping stuff, beautifully written.

    Glagut’s back-list now becomes must-read.

  12. John, I found (and find) myself relishing certain passages of this book, particularly two at the beginning of the ‘The Lover’ Malawi part. How much humour did you find in this? There seems to be a genuinely startling (and brilliantly conceived – is this cown to his pitch and tone, that he can ellicit this?) dichotomy that fuses stark existentialism and wry humour.

  13. This is the first book I read on my newly-purchased Kindle and it achieved the effect of making me forget everything but the words I was reading. Tube stops flew by. He is a mesmerisingly good writer, demonstrating fluently that ‘fine writing’ can be used quietly to convey information with each sentence, rather than the flashy show-off prose of some writers of literary fiction.

    Interesting to look at some of the Amazon reviews where many readers did not like it at all. Which shows what dolts many Amazon ‘reviewers’ are.

  14. Totally agree. As much as I like Howard Jacobson I’m cheering this on for the award. He’s such a tremendous writer, and of the books of his that I’ve read, this is the best.

  15. Linda,

    Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes read it on his mobile and had exactly the same experience. It’s a book that clearly transcends its medium (though actually, I’ve found the Kindle generally very easy to read on, mobiles are trickier though).

    Amazon reviewers are always rather variable in quality. Be glad you’re not looking at computer games there – “I don’t have this yet but it’s going to be AWESOME. Five stars”.

    I don’t read those reviews anymore.

  16. I don’t read Amazon book reviews much anymore either. Sometimes I look at the negative reviews of a book, which can tell you as much about the book (and the reviewer) as the positive ones can.

  17. Much to John Self’s annoyance, I’ve become a fan of the Kindle. I’ve just got to Cornwall after a four hour train journey including a long conversation with the ticket collector who told me he’d downloaded ten 19th century novels onto his and was stuck into Tess of the d’Urbevilles.

  18. I’ve read about four novels on mine now, without the slightest problem. I’m hopeful that if it sells well it will encourage more people to read the classics (like your ticket collector).

    Not that I think the classics merit reading necessarily more than contemporary stuff, but whether more or less they generally merit reading.

    I still buy small press books, but more mainstream stuff and genre fiction I suspect increasingly I’ll get on the Kindle. My main hesitation presently is that with translated works (and much of what I read is translated) I do like to know who the translator is and I have some preferences, and the Kindle versions are sometimes out of date 19th Century translations which on occasion are heavily bowdlerised or just plain innacurate. Not always, but often enough.

  19. I think in the future -‘But it isn’t a book! You can’t crack the spine or smell the paper’ – will be replaced by ‘But it isn’t a Kindle! You can’t enlarge the typeface or go to a file with all your underlinings and notes in one place.’

    There are advantages and disadvantages to both. We have grown up with books and have a special intimate personal relationship to them as tactile objects, like the Kit Kat foil and paper sleeve wrapper which the Kindle can’t duplicate, nor do they furnish a room, but I’ve brought down to Cornwall on mine War and Peace, the collected stories of Jihn Cheever and a PD James for a bit of light relief. I’d have had to take a bigger suitcase if they were books.

  20. My China trip recently would have been wholly impractical without it. I wrote up the experience over at mine, but in essence I was able to pack the Kindle instead of a half-dozen books which given I was there for over two weeks on hand luggage only was a big deal.

  21. But what about the smell? Smouldering plastic vs the heavenly aroma of paper and ink…the feel of the pages in your hands…the crisp splendour of black font on creamy-white paper…the heft and freight of the tome as you snap it shut for the evening and lovingly place it on top of the toppling pile as opposed to ‘logging off’…?

  22. Linda, if you think the Amazon reviewers’ comments on In a Strange Room are depressing, try some of these.

    “…felt like I was reading the synopsis for a new trendy perfume advert…”

  23. The good doctor is worth a read. There are only a few youngish South African writers that can hold my attention.

  24. Pingback: The Second Pass

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