Nothing could have prepared for me for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In the end, nothing did. I finished the novel in a day and a half at home. It is astonishing. Its effect on me was physical. It made my palms sweat. I stayed up to read and did not sleep. I moved from the bed to the couch to the kitchen to the swivel chair then back to the bed. I burst into tears. (My dog Budoy came in and extended his leg more than once to console me.) In the middle of the third story—“The Guardian” (the novel is divided into three sections)—I slapped the book shut and decided to go up to the balcony and lift weights. I’m useless at lifting weights. But I felt like I had to: mainly to keep my distance. If this sounds awfully dramatic—I’m only talking about a book, correct?—forgive me. I can’t tell you why, unless you’ve read it yourself, and even then, I can only tell you that Anna, the narrator’s destructive friend, reminds me of someone in my own life, never mind that the story in which she figures—the third, yes, “The Guardian”—seems to be the story with which the critics were not very enchanted. But who cares about the critics anyway.
In a Strange Room (the title should ring a bell to anyone who has read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) was lent to me by a friend who’d put his copy in a paper bag that he handed to me a couple of weeks ago. Also inside were The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham (nephew of the famous W. Somerset) and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Judging these books by their covers, I think I ought to read the Maugham next. I could use a little cheering up! And from what I heard, Lord Maugham was a bit Wilde, a bit Waugh.