Thursday, January 17, 2013

REVIEW: In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut. Published 2010 by Europa Editions. Short Stories. Literary Fiction.

"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."

I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself lately, and Ebert describes his early days as a film critic and his education in the art of film- time spent visiting sets, talking to stars and directors, etc., learning how to understand and evaluate a film on technical grounds. But in the end, what he had to talk about was what did the film do to him. It's something I'm trying to think about more consciously as I read and review books. What did this book do to me?

In a Strange Room scarred me. Composed of three almost independent novellas, Galgut tells the story of an itinerant South African man named Damon and his travels in Africa and India with various companions. Each of the three chapters is titled after Damon's role in relation to these companions. In one, he's a follower, trailing behind a vain and self-contained German who poses more and more difficult physical challenges as the mens' amiable relationship breaks down. In the second, Damon is the admirer of a man who is part of a boisterous group of tourists he encounters in a neighboring country and follows all the way to Amsterdam. But it's the final story that will haunt me. Here, Damon is companion and caretaker to the mercurial and volatile Anna, mentally ill and suicidal. His time with her, in India, is horrific- a nightmare that challenges his endurance, his patience, his love and his sense of himself.

The first two chapters are luminous, moody and full of description; the third is all action and plot until it quiets down after the maelstrom in India ends and Damon returns to South Africa alone. When I picked it up to start the third chapter, I didn't expect to be unable to put it down. I picked In a Strange Room as my first Europa of 2013 because I'm on a bit of a South Africa bender right now, but most of the book takes place elsewhere. And Galgut has several lovely passages on the traveler's state of mind, the particular kind of alienation and impermanence peculiar to the wanderer:

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are....Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.
And in writing. Damon is always alone, even though he is almost always in the company of others. He is alone in crowds, on bus rides and at checkpoints, and most particularly he is alone with Anna, locked in her disease and her manias. Her voracious need fills every available space, every nook and cranny of Damon's consciousness as he struggles to care for her. Her needs give his life a purpose, at least for a time. But it can't go on like this forever.

What a beautiful, heartbreaking book, a study on solitude and relationships and how to coexist with others and the world and sit apart at the same time.

It's my first book for the 2013 Europa Challenge and I loved it! Short listed for the 2010 Booker Prize, it also counts towards The Complete Booker Challenge.

Rating: BUY!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


Jules said...

This sounds like an interesting read, so I'm going to have to take a look. Thanks for the review.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, I can tell you loved this book! I'm adding it to my wish list.

Eva said...

Putting this on my TBR list!

Sandy Nawrot said...

You have been on a little bit of a roll here lately, haven't you? It is a tangible thing to be scarred by a book. And I like that quote from Ebert. I always feel like a bit of a sham to critique someone's writing but I can always honestly and earnestly tell everyone what the book did to me.

Zibilee said...

This does sound like an excellent book, and one that seeks to explore the loneliness that one can feel in a crowd. The third part of this book particularly intrigues me, and I am glad that you gave this one a thumbs up. I will be looking for it!

Becca said...

This sounds like an incredible read. I am adding it to my TBR! It is definitely interesting to figure out what books (or films) do to us.

Meytal Radzinski said...

It's interesting, I really didn't like In a Strange Room. It's been a few years, but I remember feeling a deep dislike towards the narrator, finding no interest in his travels or the people he is involved with (though certainly the last story was the most powerful, and the one I remember most strongly, even if unpleasantly). Most of all though, I didn't like Galgut's writing - something about it rubbed me the wrong way. A matter of taste, I suppose, but it's funny to see such a sharply different take on the book.