Thursday, 30 September 2010

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart 2010)

Set in three parts, 'In a Strange Room' is a work of meta-fiction mixing old fashioned story telling with travelogue in a way very reminiscent of WG Sebald. The stories see the narrator (also an author named Damon) travelling first in Lesotho then throughout central Africa and finally in India. We see him interacting with an unusual rather emotionless dark German figure called Reiner with whom he goes walking, then with a group of Europeans travelling north together through Africa and then with a unstable friend hell-bent on killing herself.

The book takes its title from the William Faulkner quotation "in a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep" and if there is a theme that connects the three stories it is the discomfort that quote speaks to, for the book is a disquisition on uneasiness. Whether it is the hint of unexpressed homosexual desire, the awkwardness involved in being in a group that one has no connection or history with or of facing a traumatic situation in a country that is not just foreign to you but whose social norms are so wildly different from those of the country you call your home. First published as three short stories in the magazine Paris Review you could be forgiven for worrying that the book would be disconnected but that is really not a problem as the themes that connect the stories are so strong. The character Damon doesn't just find himself in uncomfortable situations, he is a character who is ill at ease with the world forcing him to move from place to place.

It is a short novel coming in at only 180 pages and Galgut plays a bit fast and loose with his punctuation but this has been one of the best books I've read in a long while. It stands, in my opinion, easily heads and shoulders above the other Booker shortlist novels I've read so far. I'm not sure how to rate its chances for success because whilst this type of novel is particularly suited to my tastes, I'm not sure how widely popular it would be. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it.