In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

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In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Melanie Allen
Reviewed by Melanie Allen
Summary: Interesting read that challenges how you view the idea of travelling. Three journeys by a character who plays three separate roles. Skilful writing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 978-1848873223

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'In A Strange Room' follows the actions of one man as he travels across three different countries, with three sets of companions, playing three separate roles. Never settled in one place, narrator Damon continually hops from one country to another collecting more stamps in his passport than he does friends.

I must admit, one of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the way Galgut pieced it together. Split into three chapters, it reads more like a collection of short stories; separate journeys with entirely different experiences, the only constant being the narrator. In each episode, he has a different role on the journey – he is the Follower, the Lover, and the Guardian. As 'Follower', he is led rather forcefully by enigmatic, silent and mysterious German, Reiner, who he admires, yet loathes simultaneously.

He then meets several carefree backpackers who he travels with through Africa. One of the travellers, Jerome, has a silent hold over Damon and carries a strange fascination for him. Never left alone with the other, the tension between them grows, and almost develops into something more than a vaguely passionate admiration. Yet since Damon struggles to forge any kind of connection with those that he meets, this lustful spark refuses to ignite. Despite a rather impressive attempt to regain his interest – chasing him halfway around the world – they both move on. Again.

The third section, in my opinion, is the most disturbing and powerful chapter. As the 'Guardian', Damon must look after his depressive, mentally insecure, suicidal, lesbian friend, Anna. Amidst her continually shifting mood swing, her adamant refusal of medication, her erratic sleeping patterns, and her new found obsession with older men, Damon's gaze is never free to wander.

His responsibility for her begins to grate, as does her OCD patterns, yet it is also the closest he comes to any real emotion that he doesn't immediately shy away from – he can't afford to, her life is at risk. This panic to keep her safe gradually wears off, and, as per usual, he distances himself from blame or hurt at the first chance.

At first, I felt really disconnected from the entire thing – the characters, the ever-shifting locations, and the writing style. Although it was felt like a bit of a struggle to make myself read past the first few pages it quickly became completely compelling, and a lot less like hard work. Also, this is the first thing I've read by this author, so perhaps if I was familiar with his other work I wouldn't find his writing style quite so detached.

Galgut has a style that is strong, and certainly unique. Throughout, its unclear narrative that makes the story lucid and indecisive. As a reader you never know where it's heading or who exactly is being referred to at times, as it slips between third and first person effortlessly – even within the same sentence. Particularly during the third section this uncertainty adds to the tension, yet I expected to gain more of an insight into the mindset of the narrator. It seems purposely evasive and at times deliberately hard to access, and I found myself wishing that through his travels the narrator found somewhere that resembled home. Again, I was left disappointed.

It's risky, because this style could have easily come across as lazy and confusing, if it wasn't so obvious that it was intentionally written with this in mind. Again, this adds a sense of detachment and a further acknowledgement of Damon's lack of sense of place.

As a writer, I cannot fault his creativity - he is certainly well recognised within the literary world, with another novel, The Good Doctor, being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. If you are a reader who enjoys traditional punctuation, then maybe this is something to avoid. With no explicit dialogue, the text reads almost monologue-like, with a stream-of-consciousness style.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. As well as being well written, in a very interesting style, it is quick paced and really challenges the carefree and idyllic image that travelling can sometimes have. Although it concentrates more on the characters rather than the location, his way of creating a – sometimes disjointed – sense of place is skilful, and its uniqueness means it is something I would recommend to friends.

This is like the sophisticated backpackers story.

If you like this style, and this way of challenging a sense of place – be it globally or amongst a group of friends – I'd recommend reading anything by J M Coetzee, such as Diary of a Bad Year, or Disgrace.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut is in the Man Booker Prize 2010.

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