This review contains spoilers for Damon Galgut’s novel “The Promise.”
Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize three times, South African novelist Damon Galgut is a perennial favorite of the nomination committee. Galgut’s previous novels, “The Quarry” and “The Good Doctor,” are strikingly conceived and hauntingly written. Both are powerful tales of sorrow, struggle and religion that resonate deeply with readers, and Galgut’s latest book, “The Promise,” is no exception. “The Promise,” the favorite to win the Booker Prize this year, is a novel about South Africa during the golden years of Nelson Mandela, a time teeming with potential. It is also a novel about the disappointment of lost hopes and neglected promises — this juxtaposition reflects the complicated history of South Africa.
Set on a family farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, beneath the arching sky of the veld, Galgut details the degeneration of a white Afrikaner family, the Swarts, over the course of four turbulent decades. As tragedies small and large afflict the family, a neglected promise haunts the survivors. With poetic, cutting prose and a striking moral message, “The Promise” is a powerful reckoning for a family and a country in turmoil.
The unusual composition of “The Promise” opens a window into the Swart family’s life at irregular intervals centered on four pivotal funerals, beginning with the death of the family’s matriarch, Rachel. At the funeral, Rachel’s children — the true protagonists of the book — first appear. Nineteen-year-old Anton, sarcastic, intelligent and impetuous, returns home from serving by obligation in South Africa’s military. His 17-year-old sister Astrid is beautiful, self-centered and manipulative. Finally, 13-year-old Amor, considered a strange child, views the world from afar in the disaffected manner of early adolescence. None of them close, the siblings are only reunited by subsequent funerals that span decades. All but Amor, the sole survivor by the end of the book, will change for the worse.
The namesake of “The Promise” is the words whispered by Rachel on her deathbed. Rachel’s loyal caregiver Salome (Black, like all the servants in the country at the time) lives in the “Lombard House,” a modest building at the edge of the family farm. Amor, only 13 at the time, invisible as always, overhears her mother say, “I really want her to have something. After everything she’s done.” “Ja, I promise,” chokes out Pa, his voice hoarse with grief. Though Amor confides in Anton, her young voice is drowned out by the adults following the funeral proceedings. Her quiet insistence sustains the promise for three decades in the face of opposition from her white relatives and indifference from Anton. At each funeral, the promise is again revisited and abandoned, fueling Amor’s ceaseless feelings of guilt. This guilt drives Amor to work as a nurse in an HIV ward, though she knows these efforts can hardly right the wrongs of the past. Perhaps the only moral character in the novel, Amor sustains the promise through the decades.
Galgut’s prose is awe-inspiring, a mix of succinct description and effortless dialogue that binds the reader to the pages and compels them onward. Galgut’s command of the craft is so powerful that it transcends the plot of the book, especially when describing characters’ innermost thoughts. In one scene, a younger Anton’s reflections are narrated: “But a tiny sourness at the back of his throat seems always to have been there, though his life is pure and mild as milk. Wherefrom this curdling? There is a lie at the heart of everything and I have just discovered it in myself. Spit it out. What is wrong with you man?” Galgut writes without quotation marks, in a style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or, perhaps, Vonnegut. His unique style creates seamless passages from narration to dialogue, making for a rapid read. The book’s 250-odd pages flash by, and I was left with a bitter taste for the characters as well as a spinning, broadened mind.
Galgut’s dialogue is plausible, the emotion tangible. Before Anton is forced out of the family, an exchange between him and his father (Manie) sticks in my mind: “Manie has brooded upon the events of the previous evening, like a hen upon a huge black egg. You have offended my marriage and religion and you shall pay. You must know, Pa, that I can never do it.” Though “The Promise” lacks imagery, it impresses elsewhere with deft characterization and fascinating dialogue.
Following Rachel’s death, Salome’s right to the house is left uncertain by the Swart siblings, who fail for decades to fulfill their mother’s promise. This largely resembles the outcome of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees, “courtlike bodies established by the new South African government in 1995 to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid.” Though these committees established an accepted truth about the damage caused by apartheid and often recommended reparations, compensation for these damages rarely materialized. Amor’s struggle to keep the promise echoes South Africa’s political struggles over the TRC and reparations payments. Though ultimately focused on the Swarts and their own agitated lives, Galgut’s framing of “The Promise” as a metaphor for reconciliation is subtly successful.
Despite the slow burn of this underlying metaphor, the novel rarely addresses its own expansive political themes overtly until the last chapters of the book. Yet, in these final moments, the spirit of the nation shines through the pages. The optimism of a reunited country is captured when describing South Africa’s triumph in the rugby World Cup: “South Africa! The name used to be a cause for embarrassment but now it means something else. Truly we are a nation that defies gravity.” So too is the loss of faith those in South Africa had after President Jacob Zuma’s corruption scandal. The nation’s ecstasy after Zuma’s resignation in 2018 was palpable in “The Promise” — “Surely everybody can sense it, the change in atmosphere now that the bad man has resigned … Goodness will prevail across the land, the Guptas will be arrested, all the crooks will be locked up!” Though the novel is largely introspective, Galgut manages to convey the spirit of South Africa at some of its greatest moments of triumph and unease.
Despite an underwhelming, poorly cathartic ending, Galgut’s novel resonated with me in the days after I finished it. Perhaps it was intentional, a fitting connection to South Africa’s ongoing struggle as a nation. Rarely are our own endings perfectly cathartic — we carry the traumas of the past even after their resolution. Reflecting on the flawed characters I know and the lost potential of my own country, glimmers of Galgut’s writing appear in the shadows of my own life. The true strength of this book is in its prose, dialogue and effortlessly vivid characterization. But I’ve said enough — seek out “The Promise” and discover Galgut’s style for yourself.
Daily Arts Writer Sam Matthisson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.