Since I just started reviewing books recently, I generally read reviews by readers on Goodreads or google up reviews from the media. I do this in order to gauge my understanding of the book, and to reread portions in the book that may have eluded my understanding. Damon Galgut’s book, The Impostor put me in a fix. Everyone else was raving about this book. Also, his previous book, The Good Doctor, had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. This was my first book by the author, and also my first book set in South Africa. Expectations were obviously high. What bothered me most was the absence of a plot, and I felt that I was merely ambling along an uneventful account of someone’s life. I was forced to change my mind as I started jotting down this review.
The book begins when the protagonist, Adam Napier, who has recently lost his job and his house and is about to move into his brother’s abandoned house in an unforgiving and harsh countryside. Previously, having published a poetry book, Adam thinks of himself as a poet, and has a vague idea of writing poems again. He feels the need to move into the countryside with the hope that the lush surroundings will spring out the poems laying dormant inside of him.
The landscape is completely different than the one he imagined. It is dry, lifeless, and “sun blasted”. He is alone in a huge house that is nearly taken up by weeds. His attempts to clean up the weeds and the yard start off with enthusiasm, but are always incomplete. This is also reflected in his feeble attempts to write poetry that always end in the page ‘outstaring him’.The poems always remain invisibly out of his reach. The failure to clean up the yard and write poetry also point to the kind of character that Adam is – someone who is defeated and who does not have a reason for living. The poetry, we later learn, is just an excuse, an aberration from the will of living the routine of everyday life.
Adam keeps a fearful distance from his neighbor (Blom, or the blue man), and then takes up a friendship with the Cannings every weekend. Kenneth Canning, his school friend, invites Adam joyfully into his life. He hero-worships Adam and claims that Adam changed his life in school, but Adam does not seem to remember him. Adam is instead intrigued by Baby, Kenneth’s enigmatic wife.
Adam comes across as a restrained and passionless character. Although the book is about him, he is not elevated to a position of a hero possessing ideal qualities. He is left wanting and is clearly struggling with his inabilities and insecurities. Baby’s enigma is well written. She is literally as well as metaphorically an enigma as she pirouettes in and out of the prose, hiding behind doors as well as lurking between the lines. Canning is clearly in love with Baby, but she does not return his love, instead using him as a pawn to get ahead in life. Baby’s past is never explained, but just hinted at in a couple of paragraphs that she had to fight a great deal to secure her position.
Canning is a business man, who has left his wife and daughter for Baby, and is now in the middle of cracking a deal to make a gold course out of the land that he owns in the countryside. Canning is always happy to have Adam over; he also chooses to glaze over the affair of Adam and Baby, and only reveals to Adam in the end that he knew. I did not understand why he chose to not do anything about it. He is reluctant to involve Adam in his shady dealings, but yet utilizes Adam to deliver a packet, which is supposedly a bribe to the Mayor.
Racial underpinnings and class fractures are the backdrop of this book, and Adam is poorly equipped to navigate the experiences and provides us with only observations. This is a South Africa I learned, where money is to be made in building a country, where corruption goes hand-in-hand with expansion. Adam’s brother, Gavin, is also like them; he is already a part of the corrupt underbelly of South Africa, where everyone, right from the blacks and the whites are opportunists, colluding to pass money and make deals.
The blue man and Charmaine and Gavin’s wife were other characters that evaded my grasp of what the author wanted to convey through them. Perhaps, this is like real life where not every body you meet is supposed to occupy important and explicable positions in your life. Some people will no doubt always occupy shadowy corners, and remain as unwelcome guests.
The lack of a story was slightly explained towards the end, when it is dawns upon Adam that he had been suffering from depression during the year he spent in the countryside. It still does not completely tie up the loose ends, and interpreting the ending seems like a futile exercise. But, isn’t depression also something like that? It may creep up without a cause, linger without you even knowing it, and even after eons it may make little sense.
As I end this review, I am now able to appreciate the title of the book, The Impostor. Adam, living a depressed life as a passionless observer, conducting an affair with Baby is an impostor. Canning and Gavin with their shady dealings are impostors. Baby with her mystery and enigma is an impostor. Other characters are impostors because they are never fully revealed to us. The more I think about this book, the more I am sucked into a riddle into deciphering the layers and the meanings of all the characters. I will stop now.
I would recommend this book because the prose is well crafted, and just so that I can understand the many different interpretations that readers are left with after reading this book.