In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

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  Long listed for 2010 Booker Prize

In a Strange Room is made up of three short stories, each describing a journey taken by a South African man called Damon. There is so little plot that it is almost impossible to write a review without letting you know exactly what happens and so I won’t explain any more than that. If you’d like to know these details in advance then I recommend that you read this glowing review from The Guardian. I prefer to know as little as possible before starting a book and so instead of filling you in on the tiny amount of plot I’ll let you know my thoughts on the book.

As you might have guessed I wasn’t a big fan of In a Strange Room. The writing had a cold, almost clinical feel to it and this meant that I failed to engage with Damon (is it just me that gets annoyed when authors name their central character after themselves?). There was also a lack of punctuation, which added to the stilted feel.

What’s the matter.

Don’t you think we should get bigger maps. With more detail. Four or five of them for the whole country.

But what for.

Then we can plan every part of the walk.

But we can plan with this.

But not enough.

They look at each other, this is the first time they’re out of step.

There was a lot of thoughtful wisdom in this book, but there was almost no plot and therefore no forward momentum. Luckily the book was quite short (180 pages of well spaced type) and so I read it in one sitting.

I’m afraid that this one wasn’t for me, but if you enjoy literary novels with more theme than emotion then this may be for you.

Opinion is divided on this one:

….a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons. Kevin from Canada

I did not care for it very much. Paperback Reader

I thoroughly enjoyed this intellectually engaging novel…. Nomad Reader

 Have you read anything written by Damon Galgut?

Which was your favourite?


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  1. Tony says:

    So, when will you announce YOUR shortlist? ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, I really hope that I’ll be able to finish C this evening and then post my shortlist on Monday morning. If I don’t manage to finish C tonight then my short list might have to wait until Monday evening. Whatever happens I’ll make sure I do it before the real list is announced. :-)

  2. I’m not at all surprised that you didn’t enjoy this one, Jackie. I am surprised that you didn’t mention the irritating shift between first and third narratives.

    Naming his protagonist Damon lends credence to theory that this is a very autobiographical work. I think he was trying too hard to be Coetzee and I would far prefer to read Coetzee.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I didn’t find the shift in narratives that annoying – especially when compared to the cold writing style and lack of plot, but I know what you mean. It didn’t add to my enjoyment ;-)

      I have a very hit (Disgrace)/miss (Summertime) relationship with Coetzee – I just prefer more conventional narratives.

  3. Stujallen says:

    I ve read some galgut and have the quarry awaiting in tbr pile ,know this one has got mediocre reviews in places ,I d recomend his debut screaming pigs a simple narrative set in nambia and semi autobiographical ,well done on doing longlist again ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, A simple narrative set in Namibia sounds much better than this one – I’ll keep an eye out for it. Thank you for letting me know about it!

  4. cbjames says:

    Over the years, I’ve begun to suspect that a Mann-Booker nomination should be read as a warning label. They do pick some wonderful books, but the pick an awful lot of pretentious stuff that’s really just hard to read, too.

    And Child 44. I’ll never forgive them for that one.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I know what you mean. I do have a very hit/miss relationship with the Bookers. Some people love the pretentious stuff, but I enjoy discovering the well written narratives hiding on the long lists.

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you about Child 44 – I LOVED it!

  5. Jackie: This was my favorite of the 13 longlisted books by quite a bit, but obviously it was not yours. I am hoping that you will post a Farmlane shortlist (I have posted mine) so that both of us can see how out of touch we are with the Real Jury when they reveal theirs. :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Kevin, Another reason that I love reading entire long lists like this is because it gives a very clear indication of a person’s taste in books. It is so interesting to see your selection and your comments on the books. I’ll pop over and comment a bit later :-)

  6. I’m really glad I read this one first this year. I did enjoy it, but I’m a huge fan of theme. I find myself remembering very little about now, however, as it does have virtually no plot. I took down more quotes from it than any of the other novels thus far, but it hasn’t stuck with me in the same way others have. I definitely don’t think this novel has mass appeal, but I agree readers who enjoy theme and construction will gravitate towards it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I agree that it is a very quotable book, but that isn’t enough for me – they don’t have any impact on me when isolated in a paragraph instead of an integral part of an amazing story.

      It is interesting to learn that you don’t remember much about this book several weeks down the line – to me that indicates a poor book. I wonder how memorable the Booker judges will find this book after several re-reads?

  7. Sandy says:

    I can totally see how you would find this prose cold. It felt robotic. Like James, I do question how some of these books get chosen. It seems pretty random.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Once you’ve read a few then you begin to see method in their madness ;-)

  8. Amy says:

    That excerpt you include makes me think ‘meh’. I won’t be rushing out to find a copy of this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, Sometimes it is nice to cross one off the list ;-)

  9. Charlie says:

    I can’t help but think that when authors name their character the same they are really writing about themselves. And it makes sense because it’s not something you could say was accidental.

    At the start I was thinking you might say the plot line made all the other elements stronger, but I’m with Amy on that one, it sounds very meh. Making that info into one sentence paragraphs looks like an exercise in making the book thicker.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, If they want to write about themselves why can’t they write an autobiography? All these fictional biograghies just seem weird to me…

  10. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for the honest review. I tend to look for a balance between theme and emotional/character development.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, You might find there is enough character development in this book for you. There is no plot, but if you can cope without one then you might like it.

  11. Pam says:

    I agree with kevinfromcanada – this book was superb! I found it had ample theme AND emotion. It’s always interesting how people can be so drawn to a book like Room (which although good is somewhat sensational) but bolt at reading something out of the norm.

    1. Jackie says:

      Pam, It is amazing how people have such different reactions to the same book. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this one and am sure you’ll be rewarded by its inclusion on the Booker short list.

  12. diane says:

    I’m not familiar with this one, but it sounds like I haven’t missed much. Sorry it did not wow you.

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, I can’t imagine you enjoying this one either :-(

  13. John Self says:

    I’m a fan of Galgut and I liked In a Strange Room, though not as much as some on the Booker site did, and not as much as I liked his last novel The Impostor.

    There is definitely a question whether this book is really a novel. First, the three parts were originally published as standalone pieces in Paris Review. Second, they are essentially autobiographical, with Galgut saying that “the project was to recall, as honestly and truthfully as I could, three journeys that I’ve taken at different points in my life.”

    That might suggest that it’s not fiction at all, though I like Galgut’s response to that, which is “memory is fiction” – something we all know to be true when we ask different people to recall the same event and see how their accounts differ.

    Anything which takes an original or experimental approach gets an immediate head start as far as I’m concerned: so many books are just told in the same old way that it’s refreshing and relieving when someone tries something different – even if they don’t entirely pull it off. In this book, Galgut’s merging of the first and third person narrator is a good example: it uses a neat technique to distinguish the person recalling the events from the person experiencing them – emphasising that we all change as time passes and are, to all intents and purposes, a different person now than we were ten years ago.

    1. Jackie says:


      I love the “memory is fiction” quote :-)

      It does seem as though this is a dubious entry for the Booker prize. I’m not normally a fan of short stories and this book felt very like three short stories. I’d love to know why they decided to let this one through, especially since Galgut himself states it is autobiographical (I didn’t realise he’d said that)

      I love books that are original, but I often have trouble with the experimental ones. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this one and will be very interested to see if it makes the Booker shortlist.


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  5. African book did enjoy journey read this

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