Review: The Quarry – Damon Galgut

quarry

I’ve not read any South African books for a long time – noteworthy South African novels which stick in my mind would be Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Disgrace by J M Coetzee and a couple of books by Nadime Gordimer (I am ashamed to notice that these are all by white South Africans).  I read in a newspaper that Damon Algut’s highly-regarded 1995 novel, The Quarry has just been re-released (at a very reasonable price on Kindle) and needing a break from lengthier books I decided to try it.

Damon Galgut has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize and has also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Good Doctor.  He is noted for writing about Post-Apartheid South Africa and uses his position as a well-known writer to take  a stand on human rights issues.

As I read The Quarry I felt that Galgut was using the fewest words possible – this is undecorated prose, matching the bleak landscape of pre-reformed South African townships.  Into this landscape walks an unnamed man.  He has been walking for days, living off the land and sleeping in ditches.  Before long we learn that he is on the run and doesn’t care where he is going, only that wherever it is, it is somewhere other than the place he is fleeing from.

The land he walks through seems to be a desolate place; neglected scrub-land, with scattered villages which have turned their backs on the world – and passing travellers.  A car stops and a lift is offered, but who is in more danger, the driver of his new passenger? The sinister landscape adds to a sense of tension:

It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry. Boulders glistened occasionally from side to side with that fulsome pinkness of flesh.

Before long a sexual approach is made, a terrible crime is committed and a body is hidden in a nearby quarry.

The scene now shifts to a coastal township where the people live in grinding poverty, subsisting on menial work and theft from visitors.  A car can be stripped down overnight and a door left open will result in a house being ransacked.  A church stands in the centre of town and a false preacher gathers a congregation around him while the local police chief begins to investigate a murder.  The nearby quarry is a dumping ground for refuse of all kinds, and also a hiding place for the fruits of many sins.

The book ends with a fugitive escaping from the law, while an eclipse of the sun distracts the local population:

. . . he broke free of them and ran up the main street between the solemn assembly of watchers sitting in their chairs lying on their backs standing their telescopes and cameras and fragments of coloured glass pressed to their eyes and the light was the light of some other planet with a dwarf star for a sun cooling slowly to an ember whole continents and seas below sealed up in ice preserved in the layered gloom that might have emanated from him he ran in all the thick hot stillness he was the only point of motion of frenzy.

This is not the only book I’ve read entitled “The Quarry”.  I can see the popularity of the word “quarry” with writers  – ita quarry is s place where things are dug up from, but also dumped in.  You stand at the edge of a quarry and feel slightly nervous.  It’s a big hole in the surface of the earth, which really shouldn’t be there and represents a danger to children and adults alike.  In Jacob Theorin’s novel The Quarry, the main character works hard to build stone steps into the side of a nearbyquarry so that people can get out more easily, but these quickly get mysteriouslydestroyed.  In Galgut’s quarry, there are even deeper holes at the bottom of the quarry in which corpses can be dropped, but these are not deep enough to hide the stench of decay.  Quarries are thoroughly unpleasant places all round I think!

Interestingly enough, this book received wildly divergent reviews on amazon.uk with two people giving it five stars and three people giving it one star.  I felt that although this is a beautifully-written book is also tells a compelling story (literary fiction does not have to be boring!).  I’m probably in the “five star” category (perhaps 4.5) – the book is not long but packs a lot into it’s couple of hundred pages.  It’s almost a perfect Kindle read, grabbing my interest quickly and moving along at quite a pace and I think it would stick in the mind of anyone who takes it seriously.

21 comments to Review: The Quarry – Damon Galgut

  • Do go back and read ‘The Good Doctor’. It provoked one of the most extended and interesting book group debates I’ve ever been part of and that includes last nights two hour discussion of ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

  • Thanks for that Alex – I’ll definitely look that one up

  • I am even more ashamed that I have read no South African Literature. This one sounds like a good place to start.

    I enjoyed your insightful musings on the symbolism and meaning of quarries.

  • I reviewed Galgut’s novel ‘In a Strange Room’ in July last year. I enjoyed reading it but I was critical because the central character is so unlikeable in my view. What I failed to note in the review, and what you have highlighted here, is the spare prose that Galgut uses, evocative of the landscape and often taciturn dealings between people. I really like that style of writing – the two Willies come to mind: Faulkner and Golding. This story sounds much more interesting.

  • I ve this on my tbr I brought second hand copy I ve only read two by him good doctor and in strange room ,he is a very stylistic writer ,all the best stu

  • I so disliked Galgut’s writing (and characterization and storytelling and everything) in In a Strange Room that I really, really doubt anything will convince me to read one of his books again. Even from these short passages… there’s just something about his style that I don’t like. It doesn’t surprise me that this one would also inspire mixed feelings among readers.

  • I read In a Strange Room and really liked it, so thanks for the tip. I should check out his backlist.

  • I thought In a Strange Room was marvellous and it sounds as though I wil certainly like this book as well. I had not heard of it yet, so thanks for your review. I have just downloaded the book to my Kindle.

  • JoV

    I think it was the lower star on Amazon that stopped me from buying this but instead I got the “Good Doctor”. Galgut is one writer I would like to try. Having love Coetzee’s Disgrace, I am forever looking out for another novel set in South Africa. Galgut and Nadine Gossamer would be next to try.

  • Interesting, because by the sound of this, running away is a recurring theme. In ‘In a Strange Room’ I thought he was running away from himself…
    And in ‘The Impostor’ the main character is escaping things too, AND if my memory serves me correctly, there’s a similar sequence with a disappearance into a remote and desolate place.

  • Hi Lisa – you know more about this writer than I do. I’m not sure I’d read any more by Galgut but this one was pretty good.

  • Not really! BTW if you want to try a South African writer who’s Afrikaans, I’ve just come across In the Fog of the Seasons’ End by Alex La Guma (see The Africa Book Club http://www.africabookclub.com/?p=13299) which looks as if it will be very interesting and Zakes Mda is a highly respected prize-winning author. (See http://www.africabookclub.com/?s=zakes+mda)- I think he’s Xhosa but I’m not sure.

  • Hi Lisa – interesting – I am sure anything written in 1972 by a black S African is going to be pretty painful to read – ” the book seems to offer no immediate hope or promise of independence or comfort. It shows things realistically as they were before the independence; harsh, rugged and brutal”. Actually, perhaps a little too painful for me but thanks for the link

  • Hi JoV – this one could be the one to read – it’s pretty good and is a fairly quick read. Very dramatic too

  • Hi Anna – I hope you enjoy the book and I look forward to reading your thought about it

  • Thanks for visiting Guy

  • Hi Biblio – thanks for visiting. Well, one thing I’ve learned through book blogging is that there is a vast range of opinions on what goes to make a great book.

  • Hope you enjoy it Stu. Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been pretty busy lately

  • Hi acorn – sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. Thanks for your comment – I’ve not read anything else by Galgut but may give him another try in a few months time.

  • Schoggi

    Hi, I have just stumbled across your blog while looking for mesmerizing and current South African fiction. The Quarry may not qualify, but if you look only a little bit further, there is WE NEED NEW NAMES, also shortlisted for the Booker and written by NoViolet Bulawayo who grew up in Zimbabwe. It is a great book both about life in Zimbabwe in the naughties as well as about being African in the United States. I loved it.

  • Hi Schoggi – thanks for the comment. I’ve just looked up We Need New Names – it looks very interesting, so thanks for the tip.

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