Title: The Promise
Author: Damon Galgut
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary fiction
First Publication: 2021
Major Characters: Manie, Anton, Astrid, Amor, Salome, Rachel
Setting Place: South Africa, Pretoria (South Africa)
Book Summary: The Promise by Damon Galgut
The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.
Book Review: The Promise by Damon Galgut
The winner of the Booker Prize 2021, The Promise by Damon Galgut, is a literary classic and an engrossing tale of a white South African family’s downfall and collapse. It’s both a tragicomic family picture and a metaphor for the terrible treatment of Blacks during and after apartheid.
On a farm near Pretoria in 1986, the Swarts were a typical white family with three children. The title of the book alludes to the promise made by Manie to his Jewish wife Rachel (overheard by their daughter Amor) that the Black family maid Salome will get to inherit the tiny house she currently lives in. After Rachel’s death, Amor reminds her father of this promise, but he doesn’t remember it and pushes her away. Over the course of four decades, the Swart siblings, Anton (eldest), Astrid (middle), and Amor (youngest), must deal with the repercussions of Apartheid in their own unique ways. Damon Galgut told the story of a family torn apart by a broken promise to Salome, the maid.
The whole story is divided into four parts. The four chapters are roughly a decade apart, and each is named after a deceased figure. The matter of Salome’s inheritance is ignored, passed on, or put off in each section. Meanwhile, characters meet an unfortunate death, often violently. Each part features one character dying and those left behind struggling with the circumstances and pondering the deceased’s personalities and roles. Everyone in this dysfunctional family is yearning for redemption, but they go about it in very different ways. While the characters suffer, the political environment around them is changing swiftly, and it is difficult to say that they are progressive-for the most part, they stay indifferent, with Amor consciously seeking confrontation with personal sorrow.
“As she starts to read, the book travels into her from a long distance, from his mind to mine, across a gap in time, and now she’s not in the room any more, she’s inside the sentences, one joined to the next like a series of tunnels, connected to each other at angles.”
The time period covered stretches from 1986 to 2018, thirty-four years after Rachel’s death. The novel takes place against the backdrop of major political and social upheaval in South Africa, and Galgut is subtle and ingenious in his use of (all too well-known) events to prompt the reader to reflect on the wider picture that is reshaping the country. After being freed in 1990, Nelson Mandela “has gone from jail to throne”. The iconic 1995 World Cup rugby triumph and President Mbeki’s inauguration are interwoven throughout the Swart family saga; the book finishes with a national celebration upon President Zuma’s resignation in 2018. The Swart family is a direct reflection of these shifts in the political environment, as farms are increasingly being targeted and overt luxury comes with its own set of dangers.
From the start, there is an overarching feeling of deterioration and dysfunction in the Swart family. The story is chronological, however it is interspersed with shifting internal monologues for each character, frequently switching points of view within the same paragraph. This style is suggestive of James Joyce’s and emphasises the disjunction of both the family and society as a whole. Surprisingly, no recurrent black point of view is portrayed throughout the work. This absence, I believe, is intentional, emphasising the lack of cohesiveness in post-apartheid society.
“Odd how certain people, often random individuals, can pulse with significance in your thoughts, your dreams”
Galgut accomplishes many things in this book. The Promise is a fantastic piece of literature on the level of sentence structure, portraying vivid images of rural South Africa and evoking the family’s fears. Apart from fluidly switching points of view, he also shifts between time and location without a pause in the flow of the story; this gives the writing an irresistible momentum. In addition, he offers a fascinating look at South Africa’s post-Apartheid history. In spite of the fact that Galgut’s story is told from a white family’s perspective, he manages to capture the optimism that South Africans felt in the mid-’90s, to the gradual disillusionment and disappointment as the ANC’s promises of economic equality have descended into violence and corruption, with the white population eager to keep hold of their apartheid-earned wealth.
With an acute sense of rhythm, The Promise is a compelling novel, energetically telling the story and giving voice to its characters using a variety of literary techniques that the author appears to know well. A generational narrative of disillusionment and lost hope in post-Apartheid South Africa, via the viewpoint of a white family unwilling to do the right thing, dragged down by their stubbornness in giving up the old ways. The prose portrays the drama of the story pretty effectively throughout; a number of tone shifts, arranged in well-thought-out parts, appear like colours on a painting and give an important element of contrast to the narrative. Damon Galgut’s story appears to follow an intriguing and mysterious country’s rich and impressive literary history. In every way, The Promise lives up to its name and more.