Damon Galgut, Traveller “In a Strange Room”

“In a Strange Room” by Damon Galgut (2010) – 207 pages

 The main character in the three stories in “In a Strange Room” is a man called Damon Galgut.  This has caused some critics to question if the book is fiction or not.  After reading the book, I have no problem with the book as fiction, for certainly these are stories as much as any other fiction.  Surely these stories might have been based on events that occurred in Galgut’s real life, but what fiction is not based to a lesser or greater extent on the writer’s own life? 

One facet of these stories no one has questioned is the quality of the writing.  Sentence for sentence, Damon Galgut’s style is direct, simple, and assured.  It is a pleasure to read these stories at the sentence level.  I suspect that from now on, every year Galgut publishes a novel, it will at least be long-listed for the Booker just on the distinction of the writing.  “In a Strange Room” made the Booker 2010 shortlist.    

This book consists of three stories, all of which involve traveling.  In the first story, “The Follower”, the main character follows a rigid proud German mountain climber for several trips.  In the second story, “The Lover”, the main character meets up with a group of other travelers in southern Africa, and he is strongly attracted to one of the men of this group, Jerome.  In the third story, “The Guardian”, the main character takes along a woman friend Anna who has severe mental problems and does not follow the directions of her doctors.

There is one device that Galgut uses repeatedly in the stories which if it weren’t for his assured writing style, I would have thought was a grammatical problem or mistake.  Throughout all of the stories he repeatedly switches between referring to the main character as “He” or as “I”, sometimes almost in the same sentence.  Here is an example.

    “He sits at a table by himself’ like a stranger, and when he’s done he comes over. I’m going to Margo, I tell her, to do some shopping. “

These switches in referring to himself are a quandary, but there is one sentence in one of the stories that might explain. “I am a spectator of my own behavior”.  Exactly.  When he describes himself in one of his roles, follower, lover, guardian, Galgut uses the second person pronoun.  When he is making a personal comment on the main character, he uses the first person pronoun.  I’m not sure this device is entirely successful, but I had no trouble following the stories.   

There is a certain reserve in all of these stories that somehow lessened their impact for me.  It is as though the main character is always traveling to other places to get away from himself.  If the main character could break through this reserve, there could be more humor and emotion.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Nice summation of this interesting work. I really enjoyed it. His conscious separation of his present self from his former self was well done, I thought, and provided a nice perspective that cannot truly be achieved otherwise. I like how he sometimes acknowledges that he does not, after all, remember what he was thinking at a particular time. It is a different sort of take on the unreliable narrator, and one I like very much.


  2. Hi Kerry,
    I see what you mean – so many stories have omniscient narrators who know everything that is going on inside the minds of the main characters, but the real mind hardly works that way, and only rarely do we remember what we were thinking at a certain time.
    In terms of the quality of his prose, there are very few if any young writers that are the equal of Galgut. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.


  3. I’ve just come across this and we seem to have had similar opinions of this book. The thing that struck me most about Galgut’s prose was the precison – every word carefully put in its place. I will be looking out for his next novel certainly.


  4. Hi Graham,
    I enjoyed your review and do see the similarities in our reactions to the book. ‘Careful precision’ nicely describes Galgut’s writing, and it also well describes how the main character in these stories lives his life, maybe a little too careful?


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