‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 249 pages; 2009.

Money, morality, loneliness and being true to yourself are the central themes in Damon Galgut’s sixth novel, The Imposter, first published in 2008.

Set in the “new” South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid, it tells the tale of Adam Napier, an unmarried white man, who loses his job and his home and then reinvents himself as a struggling poet.

Rejecting his younger brother’s offer of a job working in his (dubious) property development company, he heads to a remote township in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the Western Cape. He moves into a decrepit four-roomed house, with an overgrown garden, which his brother bought years ago but never lived in.

The house, filled with dust and a depressing mix of furniture, is a metaphor for Adam’s falling-apart life. He is warned that the place is filled with “presences from the past” and he convinces himself that his own shadow is a ghost with whom he has conversations.

He has one neighbour, whom he dubs the “Blue Man” because he’s always wearing blue overalls, but the pair rarely speak — it takes months before either of them is prepared to acknowledge the other’s existence. And even then they “dance” around each other, frightened of what might ensue if they develop a friendship.

Struggling writer

Adam struggles to put pen to paper and fails to write a single poem. And even when the local mayor orders him to clean up his overgrown garden or risk being fined, he doesn’t pull out any weeds, nor chop down the offending trees he’s been told to remove. It’s like he settles into a gripping listlessness and doesn’t know how to shake it off.

From this ennui, he’s offered a reprieve of sorts when he runs into an old childhood friend, Canning, who has inherited a large estate called Gondwana, comprising a hunting lodge and safari park, a short drive away. He invites Adam to come to stay for the weekend and he accepts, even though he can’t quite place Canning in his memory.

As soon as he meets Canning’s exotic black wife, Baby, he’s drawn into the couple’s lavish lifestyle, spending every weekend at their home, drinking fine wine, eating great food and exploring the stunning landscape. But there’s something not quite right. Canning is too effusive, too needy, too generous and Adam is too embarrassed to admit he can’t remember a thing about him from their school days.

Meanwhile Baby, enigmatic and mysterious, become’s Adam’s muse, sparking his imagination and giving him the inspiration to finally compose those elusive poems he’s been so desperate to write.

As the narrative progresses, Adam’s friendships, with both Canning and Baby, come under strain — in different ways — and a sense of foreboding ensues. As he unwittingly becomes drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption, with all-too sinister implications, one wonders where — and how — it’s all going to end.

A literary thriller

The Imposter is the kind of novel that draws you in. It reads like a literary thriller, but it’s really a dark exposé of modern South Africa, highlighting how the new world is colliding with the old, how some people — both black and white — are becoming incredibly wealthy, while others are still living lives of servitude.

Through Adam’s eyes we see how personal ethics are challenged on every front as the country finds its new feet and we also see the deadly repercussions that can result if you put your head above the parapet.

The book features Galgut’s typically dreamy prose, which has an almost fable-like quality to it (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King). He uses simple language but has an eye for poetic detail and his descriptions of the savannah landscape, for instance, are especially evocative. He also has an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue.

But what made the story so compelling for me — and made me keep speedily turning the pages — was the slow build up of suspense and the dark undercurrents bubbling away underneath the surface.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought The Imposter was a terrific read — and one that only furthers my admiration for this very talented writer.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 24th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in August 2017 as part of my plan to read his entire back catalogue. As it currently stands I’ve now read five of his novels — there are three more to go!

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12 thoughts on “‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

  1. I’d never heard of Galgut until he was shortlisted for the old Commonwealth Writers Prize and they held the award ceremony in Melbourne. He didn’t win, but he’s been on my radar ever since, and I liked this one very much too.

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    • He’s a brilliant writer, Lisa. I find him reliable in the sense that no matter what he pens it will be worth reading… there’s a hypnotic tone to his writing that I like but I also respect the intelligence and deep humanity of his stories.

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  2. ok good. I’ve read two of his now: loved one and thought the Good Doctor was interesting but not as powerful as In A Strange Room. I was recently (re) sorting the TBR stacks and found this again then moved it closer to the top.

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    • I think you’d like this one, Guy, because it feels like a literary crime novel but there’s no crime in it… there’s just this sinister sense that things aren’t quite what they seem and Adam is caught up in events much bigger than himself.

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    • You probably have heard of him — he was shortlisted for the Booker with The Good Doctor in 2003, and that same book got a lot of attention because it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Africa region that same year — but the name probably hasn’t stuck. He’s definitely worth reading… I haven’t yet read anything by him that I didn’t immediately fall in love with.

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  3. Great review Kim. I read The good Doctor and Artic Summer but he has fallen off my radar a bit since then. A used copy of The Imposter is already winging its way to my ever growing TBR pile!

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    • I hope you enjoy it as much as me.

      By the way, I’ve not read Arctic Summer — did you like it? It’s the one I keep putting off because it doesn’t sound like his usual stuff. Isn’t it a historical novel based on EM Forster’s life?

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  4. This is one of the most finely crafted—and spare—thrillers I have ever read. It is also, as I suggested in my own review, a tale of total moral ambiguity. There are no heroes. And Galgut paints such vivid images that when I was at the Company Gardens in Capetown, where Adam and Canning have their final conversation, I almost expected to see them sitting there! I thought the ending was gutting. A review I saw complained that Galgut had ruined the book by tying up the loose ends but, in fact, he ties up nothing at all. He left me with a sucker punch to the gut—how easy it would be for our offhand, or even dismissive remarks to another, to set off a chain of actions, for better or worse! Love this book!

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    • You are so right, Joe — this really is a novel without heroes and it’s chock full of moral ambiguity and, like you say, there are no loose ends tied up… instead you come away from it reeling. I’ve been thinking about Adam all week… it does make you realise that things you might say that are unforgettable / meaningless to you can have so much resonance and importance to others. I guess this is a book about being careful about what you say to others!

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  5. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2019 edition – Reading Matters

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