Monday, 18 July 2011

In A Strange Room - Damon Galgut

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, In A Strange Room is the second offering by South African author Damon Galgut to be considered for this prestigious literary award. (The first was The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2003.) After reading just the first couple of pages of In A Strange Room, it becomes obvious to the reader why Galgut is a perennial favourite of the Man Booker judges, despite losing out to DBC Pierre and Howard Jacobson in 2003 and 2010 respectively.

In A Strange Room is a highly accomplished, if completely unconventional, piece of work. Masquerading as a set of three stories which document the travels of ‘Damon’ (the protagonist) around Lesotho, Central Africa and India, it soon becomes clear that this triptych of prose is more than just a collection of run-of-the-mill travel writings. Exploring themes of love, loss, loneliness, suicide and death, the book takes the reader on a journey which transcends the geographical. As we follow Damon’s aimless meandering around vast swathes of Africa and India, and witness his inability to form lasting human connections, we come to the uncomfortable realisation that his relentless travelling is really just a desperate, but ultimately futile, attempt to escape from himself. Galgut forces the reader to examine Damon’s motivations, and by default, our own ... which can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading.

Damon Galgut
But perhaps the real success of this book lies in the unconventionality of its construction. Although classified as a novel, In A Strange Room is a piece of work that simply refuses to be defined. Throughout, the reader finds himself constantly trying, and failing, to pigeonhole this book into a specific genre. Is it fact or fiction? Memoir or travelogue? Novel or a collection of longish short-stories? The answer, of course, is all of the above. And therein lies the book’s appeal. In his blatant flouting of genre, the author creates a sense of dislocation and other-worldliness which complements the protagonist’s feeling of displacement. This blurring of distinctions is something at which Galgut excels, and it is a talent not confined to the differentiations of genre - the author’s haphazard approach to punctuation (in particular, his apparent disdain for the question mark) is similarly rebellious and equally beneficial to the book as a whole.

In A Strange Room is a profoundly moving and insightful commentary on the inherent loneliness of the human condition and the fragility of all human relationships. Haunting, evocative and completely mesmerizing, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the complex nature of our interactions with ourselves and the world we live in.

4 / 5
In A Strange Room is published by Atlanntic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

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