Review: In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: December 2010

Part travelogue, part psychologically deconstructive journey, In A Strange Room kept me at arm’s length for almost the entirety of its 180 pages. Structured as three mid-length stories strung together loosely as a novella, the most pressing thought I’m left with is that the book lacked focus—both on a macro and micro level, as none of the tales, independent of the whole, came together with any level of clarity beyond the objective curiosity they first inspire.

The three sections—“The Follower,” “The Lovers,” and “The Guardian”—take the main character, Damon, on journeys through Africa, India and parts of Europe, but at no point do the destinations have life breathed into them beyond the most basic clinical descriptions. The same could be said for the manner in which dialogue and interaction of any kind is handled—surgical, detached, and lacking all emotion.

I’ve been stewing over this review for days now, as I really don’t know what to say. I didn’t hate the book by any stretch, but neither would I recommend it to anyone. What is described as a journey not only through a series of exotic, sometimes treacherous, sometimes serene, landscapes, but also as an adventure as one man experiences a series of encounters that would change his life, feels like a limp, disaffected series of uncomfortable conversations from a man that seemingly wants and does not want to connect with the world around him at the same time.

The narrative choice of switching back and forth from third person to first, sometimes within the same paragraph, did not have the intended effect—I did not feel, at those moments of first person narration, an increased attachment or intimacy with Damon’s thoughts. Instead, it felt clumsy, as if I were reading the work of a writer who could neither decide to be here nor there with his thoughts.

As a purely psychological experience, there is a lot that could be dissected from Galgut’s writing style and affectations. But is it an enjoyable, intriguing, mystifying read? Not in the slightest. He approaches intrigue only with the last story, “The Guardian”, in which he takes charge over a severely bi-polar friend. In those final pages, glimpses of his humanity sparkle in and amongst some rather laborious literary choices, but never do they shine bright enough to provide you with an entry point into the young narrator’s heart.

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