4 out of 5: In South African writer Damon Galgut’s latest novel, which is shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, the narrator (also named Damon) describes three different journeys he took as a younger man, one where he filled the role of the follower, one the lover, and one the guardian. Although each trip is distinct, involving different locations (Greece, Africa, and India), travel companions, and challenges, certain themes resurface throughout Damon’s wanderings, including his unceasing drive to keep moving and his inability to form lasting relationships. Damon’s changing character—which ranges from a powerless follower to an assertive protector, depending on the varying circumstances he confronts—suggests that a large part of human identity derives from external influences rather than from an inherent inner quality. Locating a solid core within this impermanence is what compels Damon to undertake his quests and what creates this novel’s momentum.
Throughout Damon’s travels, Galgut’s sensual prose captures the essence of the traveler’s changing landscapes and moods while maintaining an elegant simplicity that shades the three stories with allegorical overtones. Frequent switches between first and third person narration create interesting tension between the older narrator and his younger, traveling self. Overall, In a Strange Room is a beautiful and haunting meditation on loneliness and the unending drive to discover a deeper meaning of life.