The opening scene of The Impostor has the feel of a Western. Driving through an empty, unfamiliar area, Adam Napier is accosted by a police officer for ignoring a stop sign. The cop threatens him with a hefty fine, but offers to ignore the offense and accept a smaller bribe. Adam declines, refusing to submit to such corruption.
This serves as the welcome to his new home: having lost his job and his old home, he has moved away from Johannesburg to a small town in the Karoo region of South Africa. Here he takes up residence in a neglected house that belongs to his more successful brother, where he intends to spend his time writing poetry.
Adam’s new lifestyle is as shabby and substandard as the house. The weeds that fill the overgrown garden loom in the background of the narrative throughout the novel, cluttering the landscape in the same way that his thoughts clutter his head. Whenever he wants to banish these, he sets himself the task of clearing the garden, but his motivation is persistently low.
It is when he is out buying gardening tools that he is recognised by Canning. Canning says that he and Adam were at school together, but Adam has no recollection of him. Even so, the two strike up (or perhaps resume) a friendship and begin to spend weekends together. Canning lives on a game reserve he has inherited from his father. In common with much of the landscape Galgut describes, the reserve is barren; the animals have been lost to poachers. Compared to the rest of the area, this is a place of luxury, of fancy blue cocktails and shiny SUVs, but there is still an uneasiness to it.
An atmosphere of menace dominates The Impostor. It is this, and the dusty, sleepy town, where the locals prop up the bar and complain about new developments, that lends parts of the novel the air of a Western. This feeling is lessened after the first section though, after which Adam beings to spend more time at Canning’s place, which has slightly more domestic, verdant qualities. Even so, there are sinister elements, such the cowed old servants who silently linger, remnants of Canning’s father’s legacy, and a solitary lion kept in a drained swimming pool.
Canning is frequently called away from Adam’s company to engage in business meetings and phone calls, the nature of which are never explained. On these occasions, Adam spends time with Canning’s beautiful wife Baby, a mysterious, alluring figure whose suspicious past and aloof manner contribute to the sense of insecurity.
Broke and unemployed, Adam is very much an antihero. There are moments when he takes a stand, but for the most part he is apathetic or ambivalent. His politics is apparently non-existent, and his lack of interest in the business affairs of either Canning or his brother cements his joblessness. If he has strong feelings about anything at all, they are for nature and beauty, the themes he hopes to convey in his poetry.
But his muse is unbecoming and these cares are absorbed by the oppressive landscape. The fact that Galgut has fashioned an engaging character out of such a man is testament to his skill as a writer. He pushes his depictions of Adam’s loneliness and boredom to the point of claustrophobia, then splits this with an intriguing incident or suspicious character. In this way, individual moments of tension are broken, but the tension that builds up throughout the novel continues to rise, and the plot of a thriller is subtly crafted.
As much as it is about this plot, and the character who becomes entangled in it, The Impostor is a book about modern South Africa. In spite of the novel’s oppressive feel, Galgut offers a wide view, portraying town and country, rich and poor, black and white. All of these amalgamate to suggest a country that has become free from divisions that have tainted it.
But with change has come malaise and corruption. There are now more opportunities for more people, but The Impostor shows us that to take up these opportunities it is often necessary to engage with a present that is as flawed and unscrupulous as the past.