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Friday, October 15, 2010

"In a Strange Room" by Damon Galgut (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Damon Galgut at Wikipedia
Order "In a Strange Room" HERE or ebook HERE
Read an excerpt from "In a Strange Room" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "In A Strange Room" is a book that based on blurb or cover would not have me tempted in any way until I saw it on the Booker Longlist and later on the Shortlist. Even so I was skeptical that it would interest me enough to read it, but the excerpt linked above seemed to be on my taste so I looked to get a copy. To my surprise I read it in several hours since it hooked me from the first pages, once the story gets going in South Africa.

"A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life. A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, "In a Strange Room" is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man's search for love, and a place to call home."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "In A Strange Room" stands at about 225 pages and is divided into three stories narrated in an intimate third-person mode by the author's alter-ego as we can deduce from the little details mentioned: name, where he comes from...

The stories are separated in time by years - Damon as a younger man, then some years later in his early thirties, then as a supposedly respectable forty-ish one - and space, one starting in Greece and then taking place mostly in South Africa and Lesotho, one taking place in several African countries and the last going to India.

"In A Strange Room" is literary fiction that uses the travelogue format to explore the human nature.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In A Strange Room consists of three stories that follow the main character Damon on three quite different journeys. Despite its contemporary content - which is quite essential especially in The Lover and The Guardian since the main part of the journey depends on modern travel, while a lot of the substance of the stories stems from the intersection of the contemporary local politics and mores with the personal - In A Strange Room reads also as a timeless tale of exploration, especially in The Follower, where the interaction between Damon and Reiner in the wilds of Lesotho is key to the story.

The Follower:

"Enjoy the ruins, the German man smiles. The South African says that he will. Then they part again with a nod and draw slowly away from each other on the narrow white road, looking back now and then, until they are two tiny and separate points again, rising and falling with the undulations of the land."

Damon meets a strange young German Reiner in Greece; after a tentative friendship seems scotched by their cross-schedules, the mutual attraction is too much and they get back together. They plan a big African backpacking trip and later they get to it but the story is stranger than you think. A very intimate first story though not in a romantic or sexual way.

The Lover:

"A few years later he is wandering in Zimbabwe. No particular reason or intention has brought him here. He decides on impulse one morning to leave, he buys a ticket in the afternoon, he gets on a bus that night. He has it in mind to travel around for two weeks and then go back."

Damon goes on a trip to nearby Zimbabwe and then his trip expands to the middle of the continent. Hopping between several groups of people allows the author to expand this story towards the "big picture" eg the state of the world or at least of the particular African countries visited and how the European tourists who may have come with the best intentions see it, though a Swiss trio met by Damon at a border crossing get the tale back to the intimate and personal.

The Guardian:

Even before their departure, when he goes to meet her flight from Cape Town, he knows he’s in trouble. He last saw her a month ago and she was in a bad way then, but look at her now. The first one off the plane, striding far ahead of the crowd. Her peroxide job has gone wrong, so that her hair has turned a strange yellow colour, standing out in angry spikes from her head. But more than this, something has changed inside her, which you can see from a long way off. She seems to burn with a luminous white light. Her face is knotted and anxious, bunched in on itself, and it takes her a long time to notice him. Then her expression clears, she smiles, as they embrace she is his old friend again.

This last story is weaker - it deals with drug abuse and travel to India; Damon is older and more of an observer than participant, while his nominal role of guardian for a young troubled high powered executive is not really suited for him as he soon finds out.

The writing style is
very sparse but quite descriptive too and immerses one completely in the story. "In A Strange Room" (A+) is a novel of exploration in our age that is quite deeper than its seeming simplicity may imply at first glance. Damon's journeys will stay with you for a long time.


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