Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 293 pages; 2021.
Damon Galgut is one of my favourite authors. Ever since I belatedly discovered him in 2015, I’ve been steadily making my way through his back catalogue, and I am yet to meet a book by him I haven’t adored.
I love the recurring themes in much of his work about religion, racism and community, all seen through the lens of South Africa’s complicated history and issues arising from the dismantling of apartheid.
His new novel, The Promise, is his first in seven years, so its arrival came with some expectation. I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.
A family going to ruin
In a nutshell, The Promise is about the Swarts, a privileged white Afrikaner family, living on a farm outside of Pretoria. It charts their downfall over a period of some 40 years, using this as a metaphor for the decline of white colonial rule.
The book is structured around four family deaths, each about a decade apart, and is told in the third person using an ever-shifting perspective — pegged to different characters — to create a free-flowing big-screen narrative that wields a rather hypnotic effect.
(Admittedly, it does take a while to get used to this style, because the lines between a character’s thoughts, their actions and the commentary of the narrator do blur, but once you get “into” the story it is quite spellbinding as it ebbs and flows and weaves its magic.)
The omnipresent voice swings between intimacy and sardonicism, sometimes within the space of a paragraph, and has a gleeful, occasionally witty undertone. One of the characters, for instance, likes to hang out in a particular shopping mall because “nothing terrible could ever happen to you there”:
Though she did see a man having a fit once, maybe even a heart attack, in the pet food aisle in the supermarket. Imagine, your last sight in this world, a bag of dog food!
In another, a woman wants to help her niece…
…but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.
The titular promise, which is broken almost as soon as it has been uttered, revolves around Salome, the family’s faithful Black housekeeper, who is supposed to inherit the house in which she lives and the land upon which it stands when Rachel Swart dies. But it is never fulfilled.
Atoning for a broken promise
There are three children in the Swart family — their names all annoyingly starting with “A” (Anton, Astrid and Amor) — but it is the youngest, Amor, who spends her whole life trying to make good on the promise. As a young girl she overheard her mother, who was on her deathbed, urging her father, Manie, to do good by Salome even though, technically, it wasn’t possible under South African law at the time for Blacks to own land.
But Manie denies the promise was made and Amor’s protestations to the contrary are dismissed — Amor, it turns out, was struck by lightning as a young child while out on the koppie and as a result her family think she is “not quite right” in the head. Anything she says is taken with a pinch of salt.
As the story unfolds against a backdrop of constant societal changes — “Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!” — we get to know these characters intimately. None, apart from Amor, are remotely likable. All harbour deep-seated prejudices against anyone who is not white, but they are human and all have been shaped by their upbringing and life experiences.
Manie, as the patriarch of the family, is headstrong, arrogant and ignorant. His refusal to take on board his wife’s wishes to be buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery is indicative of his whole attitude to other people.
Anton, the son, is a would-be novelist who thwarts opportunities to do good or to better himself. He seems unable to ever let go of the fact that he shot and killed a Black civilian while in the Army during national service (he went AWOL afterwards) and believes that the untimely death of his own mother, at around the same time, is his punishment.
Astrid, the oldest daughter, is spoilt and stuck-up. When she embarks on an extra-marital affair, she cannot understand why the Catholic priest, to whom she confessed, won’t absolve her of the adultery. Her sense of entitlement is palpable.
By comparison, Amor is deeply ashamed of her family. She cuts herself off from them, moves to Durban and devotes herself to helping others, becoming a palliative care nurse on a HIV ward. It is here that she can atone for her family’s broken promise, all the while holding on to the idea that maybe at some point in the future she can honour it.
Personal made political
The Promise is a wide-ranging novel that deals with big themes, not least of which is religion, racism, integrity, honour and loyalty.
By focusing on the microcosm of a single family, Galgut highlights what has happened to South African society from the 1980s to now. As the narrative moves through time, history is brought to life in a way that feels real — using sporting events and political change, for example, as signifiers of certain periods.
The mellifluous prose is light and fluid and joyous to read. Yes, it meanders, but it’s the uncertainty of the journey and the ever-changing multiple viewpoints that provides the flavour of this accomplished novel. And while the overall subject matter is weighty, the humourous one-liners and funny commentary lighten the mood.
I’m not sure this “review” articulates the brilliance of this novel. It’s taken me two weeks to put my thoughts together, but even then I am at a loss to express how deeply affecting it is, how it marries the past with the present, how it shows the Swarts as products of their time but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions about their place in history and whether it is ever possible to atone for past mistakes.
The Promise has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, which will be announced on 3 November 2021.