Sunday, January 16, 2011

'In a Strange Room' by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut achieved a new level of fame last year when In a Strange Room made it onto the Man Booker Prize shortlist. But he had been there before, a few years back, with a very fine book called The Good Doctor. Neither of these books won the prize, which seems a shame, as they are two of the most fascinating, readable literary novels I've encountered. Both possess that quality that only the most special novels have where the reader feels enriched and, in some intangible way, changed by what they have read.

In a Strange Room is, at face value, three pieces of travel writing with only a shared narrator as a common thread. Galgut himself appears to be that narrator, though he makes it clear that this is really a work of fictionalised autobiography fairly early on:

"He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past.  Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was.  But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching."

Throughout the book Galgut moves between referring to the protagonist in the third person (for the most part) and the first person. Surprisingly, this is never confusing to the reader. It simply reads as a way of distinguishing the polished narrative of his experience from the sketchier parts of the story. Thus, when the narrator is at his most confused and emotional vulnerable we are more likely to see 'I'. Whilst the three pieces are ostensibly unconnected, there is an increase in intensity throughout each, which then carries through to the next, culminating in some emotionally coruscating scenes in the final part, where the narrator cares for a manipulative, suicidal friend. Such devastating drama owes much to Galgut's precise, controlled prose. there are no pyrotechnics here,  for he shares a talent with Cormac McCarthy and countryman JM Coetzee for employing a deliberately limited vocabulary to powerful effect.

Galgut has said that this book is about power, love, and guardianship, and how our relationships are defined by one or more of these elements. It is, and more. But for me his true triumph is capturing the disconnectedness of the traveller and the frustrations of thwarted love. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 7, 2011

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt


"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

It's all there in the opening line, really: Bunny is going to be killed, the killers (among them our narrator) may or may not get caught, the killers are still only concerned about themselves.

I read this book on the strength of some glowing recommendations and some ecstatic reviews on the back pag, so it was almost inevitably going to disappoint. It did, but only slightly. It starts promisingly, laying out over several hundred pages how it comes to pass that Richard Papen and his friends kill their college classmate, Bunny. This, for me, is where the true brilliance of the story lies, as Tartt paints Bunny as such an odious, parasitic creature that I found myself urging the other characters to kill him as soon as possible. Such feelings, growing as they do over several hours, are far more discomforting to an immersed reader than they are while watching a film, where "Kill that fucker!" is a much more transitory, forgettable reaction. Also notable was how familiar the pretensions and arrogance of the scholarly friends felt. I read the book using my old student card as a bookmark to remind me of how jumped up and obnoxious third-level education can make you.

It's after the death of Bunny that things start to lag a little. I believe Donna Tartt spent several years writing this book, and it shows - in both good and bad ways. The prose is of a lovely standard, and the characters mostly well-drawn, but the pacing of the drama is all over the place, zipping along at one moment and leaden and flabby the next. As such, some key events feel hurried, while some more peripheral moments feel hugely over-emphasised.
Still, it's hard to imagine that there's a novelist out there who didn't overthink their debut novel to some degree, and far be it from me to denigrate what is a well-loved work, one that a lot of people feel is destined to enter the modern canon. Tartt shows a stunning coldness at times, and I find myself hoping that her third book, rumoured to be due next year, won't suffer the same consequences of an equally-lengthy gestation period.