Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: "In a Strange Room" by Damon Galgut

Damon, the narrator of Damon Galgut's beautiful yet spare In a Strange Room, can't seem to settle down. Every time he finds himself settling into a place, he is struck by the somewhat inexplicable need to roam. Perhaps this quote says it best: "There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it's a long way from home."

The book follows Damon on three separate journies, which are three separate chapters. In the first, he meets up with German hiker Reiner, and they wander through parts of Greece, and later, take several circles through Lesotho. On his second journey, Damon travels through Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi, and he meets (and often encounters) several people, including Swiss siblings Jerome and Alice. And on the third journey, Damon is caring for his friend Anna, who is suffering from significant mental illness. Each journey is characterized by Damon's near connections, which never quite turn out the way he hopes. Each journey sends Damon deeper into himself, his motivations and fears. And each journey leaves him wondering, what if?

Galgut's writing style was very interesting. He doesn't use quotation marks or question marks, but simply sets quotes off as separate sentences. And at times, the narrator is referred to as "I," and other times, "he" or "him." I thought the story was tremendously compelling, but much like those with which Damon came into contact, I found myself longing for connections. Too often the story led you to believe something would happen, only to be thwarted by Damon's conscience, anxiety, fears or lack of direction. The last two chapters each had heartbreaking notes but much was unsaid, even to the readers, so filling in the blanks wasn't always easy or satisfying. Ultimately, this book was, in Damon's own words, "the story of what never happened, the story of travelling a long way while standing still." Very interesting.

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