Booker Dozen 2010: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The backstory: In a Strange Room is on the 2010 Booker longlist. I downloaded it for my Kindle as soon as the longlist was announced (it has since been shortlisted.) One of Damon Galgut's earlier novels, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize.

The basics: In a Strange Room is a curious book to describe. It could well be described as both a novel or three stories/novellas. The narrator is the same throughout the stories, and they're heavily connected through theme. None of the other characters or events transcend their sections, but it still felt like a novel to me. Regardless of its structural semantics, it's ultimately the tale of a South African man who travels the world (Africa, Europe and India) forming bonds with his fellow wanderers.

My thoughts: Galgut's writing captured me from the beginning of this novel. When he writes dialogue, he doesn't use quotation marks. Instead, he adds a blank line in between each speaker. He doesn't use question marks either, which brings a poignancy and nuance to many of the conversational statements that can work as both questions and statements. Using quotation marks and question marks yields fewer meanings, but Galgut avoids them and creates a concise prose with  the beautiful vagueness of poetry. He often uses commas to string together multiple sentences. His commandeering of punctuation was as mesmerizing as the musings of his characters:
"Myth always has some fact in it. And what is the face here. I don't know, this place exists, for a long time people thoughts it didn't, that's a fact to start with." 
Galgut seems to play with the reader too. The narrator jumps between first-person and third-person and offers glimpses of the future. Initially, I couldn't tell if the narrator was the main character. Galgut revealed it by jumping between first and third-person narrative within the same sentence, a trick he used several times. This switching alters the story in its own way as well. The reader and the narrator feel closer to the story at some times than others. Galgut's prose seems simple and straightforward, but he packs a remarkable amount of punch into it. Some statements even extend beyond double entendres: "This seems to mean one thing, but may mean another."

As much as I enjoyed Galgut's use of language and beautiful characterizations of people, the musings of a frequent traveler shined for me the most:
"He watches, but what he sees isn't real to him. Too much travelling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through. Maybe horror is felt more easily from home. This is both a redemption and an affliction, he doesn't carry any abstract moral burdens but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room."
"Something in him has changed, he can't seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this not as a failure of the world but as a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn't know how. In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much. In this state travel isn't celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still." 
 As readers of this blog (and those who noticed the title of it) know, traveling and the modern nomadic lifestyle are themes that resonate strongly with me. I'm one who is fascinated by the stories of those anonymous faces who pass by me and wonders if their presence is relevant to my life and vice versa. Galgut has a much more poetic take on those whose paths cross ours: "Or perhaps he wants to see it like this, it's only human, after all, to look for a hint of destiny where love or longing is concerned."

Part of my appreciation of this book was seeing world travel through eyes so different than mine and reading it filtered through a character I don't think I would like to travel with. It was a curious dichotomy. I was fascinated by this actions and ideas, but I had no desire to actually engage in a conversation with this fictional character. Ultimately, I found myself raving intellectually more than emotionally about this book. I loved Galgut's writing, and I liked the story, but there was an emotional connection missing for me. I happen to believe that is Galgut's intent to illustrate the narrator's lack of emotional connection with people and places. Even this idea of intention makes me appreciate the writing more. For me to fully, emotionally engage as a reader, I need a connection. I'm a nomadic traveler who finds connections to people and places everywhere. I wander for joy.

Although it read like a novel to me, I was far more engaged during the first two sections. I was not terribly enchanted with the third section, which has me pondering if the order of these fractured stories matters. The journey of reading a novel is sometimes difficult as one who chronicles her thoughts on books. I find myself writing reviews in my head while I read, but I also often find my mind changing as the book goes on. Ultimately, my disaffection with the third section didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book as a whole, but it did somewhat underwhelm.

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed this intellectually engaging novel, and I look forward to reading more of Galgut's work. Recommended for fans of literary fiction.

Booker thoughts: In a Strange Room is a smart, unique, modern novel. I'm glad it made the longlist. At this early juncture, I would not be upset if it won because of how I admire Galgut's work with it, but I doubt it will be my favorite.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: April 1, 2010
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

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  1. This one really intrigues me because the author is South African and I haven't read many from there - so glad you liked it!

  2. I'll definitely be picking this one up. Thanks for the review.

  3. This does sound good, but I have to admit that the lack of punctuation would probably bug me.

  4. I gave this four stars too. I enjoyed it and his way of writing didn't slow me down at all. I don't think this one is the winner we're all looking for on the Booker longlist but it has certainly made me want to read more of Galgut. I have a copy of The Good Doctor by Galgut to look forward to when I'm through the Booker and Orange nominees.


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