Damon Galgut’s ninth novel The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize. Not having read all of the shortlisted novels it is hard to determine whether it was the best of the five. But there is no doubt that The Promise is a towering yet often intimate novel combining family drama and incisive character observation set within the turbulent recent history of South Africa.
The action in The Promise revolves around four funerals, each about ten years apart. The first is in 1985, Rachel Swart has died after a long illness and the family gathers. The children – Astrid, the oldest, Anton, just started with his compulsory army service and Amor, a teenager – come back to the family farm and into the maelstrom of family politics when it turns out that just before her death Rachel returned to her Jewish roots and has requested a Jewish funeral. At the same time, the local priest is leaning on their father, Manie, to bequeath some of the farm’s land for the construction of a church. The promise of the title, is the one Amor heard her father make to her mother that on her death he would give a small house on the land to their long time Black servant Salome, a claim that he denies and which will haunt the family through the years, particularly after the three children inherit the farm. The story then jumps forward and forward again, chronicling not only the slow descent of the Swart family but the hope and dashed promises of modern South Africa through each of its recent leaders.
Bringing this all to life is Galgut’s engaging and inventive narrative style. The omniscient narrator switches points of view and tone, sometimes within the same paragraph. The narrative circles around and inside the characters and their points of view, jumping in way that the reader’s attention may well do in a room full of people. And it does so in a way that is both revealing but also that brings out the tragi-comic nature of the proceedings.
As noted above, while the title refers to a particular “promise” made by Amor’s father to her mother, it is an idea that resonates through the book. From the promise of the Swart children who all end up reconsidering the course of their lives, to the promise of the country itself, seen to shine so brightly when Mandela came to power but now riven by corruption and impacted by climate change (the recent drought in the Cape gets a play in the final part).
While The Promise works on a number of levels thematically, it is peopled with flawed but fascinating characters and evocative of particular times and places. But it is also verbally inventive, sometimes startling in its revelations and, most of all, it is a joy to read.
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