In A Strange Room written by South African author Damon Galgut was published in 2010. Originally it was published in three parts in the Paris Review of which one part was selected for a National Magazine Award and another for the O Henry Prize. The novel went on to be shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It has been described as “a brilliant, stylish novel of anger and compassion, longing and thwarted desire, and a hauntingly beautiful evocation of life on the road”. I completely agree with this description.
GoodReads describes the book:
“In this newest novel from South African writer Damon Galgut, a young loner travels across eastern Africa, Europe, and India. Unsure what he’s after, and reluctant to return home, he follows the paths of travelers he meets along the way. Treated as a lover, a follower, a guardian, each new encounter-with an enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers, a woman on the verge-leads him closer to confronting his own identity. Traversing the quiet of wilderness and the frenzy of border crossings, every new direction is tinged with surmounting mourning, as he is propelled toward a tragic conclusion.”
The three parts of the book; The Follower, The Lover, and The Guardian, describe the narrator’s (also named Damon) journey through different countries in different stages of his life. In each part he accompanies other travellers that are often very different from himself. This book is a story of the evolution of his trips with others but it is also about an evolution of himself through the experience. It is a novel about a journey through self. It is a short but lovely read. The writing is simple yet beautiful and Galgut has a wonderful way of describing not only the landscapes they traverse but the people in the story – not how they look but who they are – in very few words. He uses words sparingly and it has impact.
I particularly liked that Galgut wasn’t preoccupied with too much backstory or explaining everything fully. He left something for the reader to interpret which I liked especially with this kind of novel which is more about journey and realisation rather than action and resolution. His descriptions of the places he travels, particularly Africa, were very good and truthful. The title, In A Strange Room, was apt, I think, because a lot of his inward journey takes place in all the small cheap rooms he stays in throughout his travels.
The book is definitely not all roses; it’s real, raw, and has an element of destiny to it. Damon’s search for self is kind of passive in the sense that he is not consciously going around trying to find himself. It is something that happens as a result of his actions in response to the problems he faces in his life and the restlessness he feels in his heart. I enjoyed this novel and I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a story about people and their search for self through travel and other travellers.