Saturday, August 14, 2010

'In a Strange Room' by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut’s new book In A Strange Room has just been longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. This will come as a surprise to some readers, not because of its quality, but because it seems to be less a novel than some form of travel memoir, or memories of travels. (Galgut was shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for a more conventional novel, The Good Doctor).

In this podcast interview with the Guardian, Galgut says that the Paris Review categorised the original pieces as fiction, and he was happy with that label, adding that memory itself is a form of fiction. He also makes it clear that all three pieces are definitely autobiographical, telling the stories of three real journeys made over the years by ‘Damon’, during each of which he becomes defined by his relationship with three very different characters. Each story is told in the present tense, in a third person singular that sometimes slips into ‘I’.

In ‘The Follower’, the keynote is power, as the narrator (the rememberer?) accompanies a forbidding German walker called Reiner through southern Africa. The second tale, ‘The Lover’, is somewhat ironically titled, given that Damon’s feelings for a young Swiss man hardly progress beyond yearning glances. The emotional intensity is cranked up in the final piece, ‘The Guardian’, which shows the psychic costs of looking after someone, in this case Damon's mentally disturbed and savagely selfish friend Anna in India.

This is a short book, at 180 pages, but it has a far greater impact than the long-listed The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, reviewed here recently, which has had huge press coverage and considerable sales. Galgut’s writing is on an entirely different level. In each of the stories the narrative drive is largely psychological (though ‘things’ do happen, particularly in ‘The Guardian’, which is often also bleakly funny). His hynotic accounts of these journeys at times touch on W.G. Sebald territory. It is a very fine achievement.

[Read a review by one of the very best travel writers, Jan Morris, here: ‘I doubt if any book in 2010 will contain more memorable evocations of place...extraordinarily readable’ and 'a very beautiful book, strikingly conceived and hauntingly written, a writer's novel par excellence without a clumsy word in it.' Read an extract from the final section here.

* Philip Womack in the Daily Telegraph says that the ‘ordered prose’ is ‘brimming with tension’.
* Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times calls it a ‘thoughtful, intelligent, cohesively human book’.
* William Skidelsky in the Observer calls it a ‘quite astonishing work'.]


Unknown said...

Looks very good. I'm going to get order it from Amazon now!

I'll let you know what I think when I'm done!


Stephanie said...

I had read the "The Good Doctor" and I can't wait to read the new one...sounds really good.

SCC English Department said...

Thanks, Zac. Not sure it's everyone's taste.

SCC English Department said...

Yes, Stephanie, have ordered that and also 'The Imposter' and am looking forward to it.