A Review of Damon Galgut’s
The winner of Booker Prize 2021
Damon Galgut’s stunning novel ‘The Promise’ charts the decline of a white family during South Africa’s transition out of apartheid. He got the idea for the novel from a conversation with a friend, who described going to a series of funerals for family members. In Galgut’s words, “The specific form of this book crystallised around a series of anecdotes that a friend told me when we had a semi-drunken lunch, about four family funerals had attended. It occurred to me that it would be quite an interesting way to tell the story of one particular family. The Promise itself also arrived from a friend, who was telling me how his mother had asked the family to give a certain piece of land to the black woman who had looked after her through her last illness, as it happens in the book.” It sounded like the perfect narrative vehicle for a family saga.
Galgut began working on a novel centred on a family — “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans,” he writes — whose matriarch dies of cancer in 1986, when South Africa was convulsing with political unrest. The novel’s title refers both to the unrealized promise of social equality after the end of apartheid, and to the matriarch’s promise to leave a house to a black servant, Salome, which causes a rift in the family. He set the novel in Pretoria, where he grew up, in part to explore the region’s dark history of apartheid and racial violence and the impact that had on his childhood.
The novel begins in 1986, with the death of Rachel, a 40-year-old Jewish mother of three, on a smallholding outside Pretoria. The drama of the novel turns on a promise that her Afrikaner husband, Manie, made to her before she died, overheard by their youngest daughter, Amor, that Manie would give their black maid, Salome, the deeds to the annexe she occupies. Now that Rachel is dead, Manie has apparently forgotten and doesn’t care to be reminded. Nor does his bigoted family, who regard Amor’s stubborn insistence that Salome should own her home as the kind of talk that “now appears to have infected the whole country”.
Manie’s failure to keep his word falls like a curse as we follow his children down the decades. Four sections, set at roughly 10-year intervals, from Botha to Zuma via the 1995 Rugby World Cup and Mbeki’s inauguration, are each named after a family member who will die; even once you’ve twigged the significance of the section titles, Galgut steals the breath with his willingness to fell his characters so randomly. Amor’s bulimic sister, Astrid, unhappily married with twins, becomes a social climber who, lured by proximity to power, cheats on two husbands; their older brother, Anton, lives in the shadow of an unrecognised crime committed while a teenage conscript deployed against black protesters during the violence of the 1980s.
Galgut’s varying tone wrongfoots us almost right away when we’re told, of someone whose barbed comment fails to land, that their disappointment is “palpable, like a secret fart”. His third-person narration darts between characters, mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence, swooping over the action to itemise someone’s secret fears, or how many times (and what) a household’s toilets flush over a two-hour period. Lines of dialogue can appear next to each other, separated by slashes, as if there are more pressing matters. “You get the idea,” the narrator says, almost impatiently.
From Rachel’s ghost to the words of a mourning prayer trying to find her, there is little that is off-limits to the narrator, who addresses an implied Afrikaner reader whose presumed prejudices are cited by way of apology for the book’s emphases – at one point, we are told that we haven’t heard much about Salome because we didn’t care to ask. As that suggests, Galgut deploys every trick in the book; he is heart-swellingly attentive to emotional complexity, but isn’t above cheap shots. When Manie’s insufferable sister compares having to leave Rachel’s funeral early (because, agonisingly, Amor gets her first period during the service) to the time that her husband forgot to tape the ‘Who Shot-JR?’ episode of Dallas, you can all but see Galgut grinningly beckoning us up beside him on his lofty perch.
Yet for all its satirical tendencies, this isn’t a book that leaves you comfortable in your certainties, not least because Manie’s bad faith isn’t the only thing undermining his promise. At the time that the book begins, South African law means Salome could not own the property even if Manie wished her to; and by the end, the state’s reconceived idea of justice means there is a prior historical claim to the land – in other words, Salome could get the house and still be evicted. The final pages dizzyingly highlight the whiff of wish-fulfilment in Amor’s dogged quest for restitution: the cathartic climax unfolds with the caveat that none of it can actually be happening, but the mark of the novel’s narrative magic is that the admission doesn’t cancel the effect, but doubles it.
While much of the narrative in “The Promise” unfolds in earlier decades, its themes — the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and questions about who belongs — are still painfully resonant in his country. In the words of Galgut himself, “The topic of land, who owns it, who used to own it, who is going to own it in the future, that topic is very central to South African political life now.”
The narration travels from mind to mind, encompassing dreams and ghosts and inhabiting minor characters, from vulnerable people to the grotesque. The voice is satirical, melodramatic and intimate by turns; it backtracks and digresses, contradicts itself with a shrug. The reader is often addressed directly, assumed to be a fellow Afrikaner, dragged into uneasy complicity with the raging self-pity and unreflecting racism of the Swart clan. The perspective we don’t get is Salome’s – itself a dramatisation of the myopia of racism.
Galgut’s alertness to complexity and contradiction, to the endlessly fertile swirl of human consciousness, has produced a layered, unpredictable feat of fiction. His themes of historical injustice and the legacy of colonial violence make ‘The Promise’ a timely, urgent winner.
The writer is serving as an Educator in Sialkot.