Book Review: The Promise by Damon Galgut

The Promise won the Booker Prize for 2021 and like many winners this one doesn’t disappoint.

This is a story spanning four decades of the Swarts family in South Africa beginning with the death of Rachel, the mother of the three children. The youngest, thirteen-year-old Amor while grieving her mother, remembers a promise made by her father that their long serving maid, Salome would be gifted the house she lives in on the property.

The promise is never kept and the omniscient narrator takes the reader on a jaunt across many characters and history over four parts. Indeed, the historical events were illuminating, highlighting Mandela’s release, and the subsequent tumultuous political, economic and societal landscape.

It is probably one of the most unusual books I’ve read in a while. The narrator skips between character and setting sometimes in a paragraph, a sentence or in a page; sometimes into dreams and the supernatural. It did take a while for me to deal with this There are no chapters and this is a book where you need to read every line, every page. And in an effort to finish, I admit to trying to skip, but quickly realised the author demanded my full attention.

There are so many characters, some are relevant but many on the family’s periphery, represent the author’s razor-sharp observation of white South Africa, the white way of life, the political landscape, religion, capitalism, racism, reconciliation and apartheid. The disintegration of this dysfunctional family was interesting only because there was not a likeable member amongst them.

Indeed, Salome who we learn very little about appears to represent a hope for a way forward. Amor, largely impotent, pops in and out as a moral barometer reminding the family of the promise, while poor Salome sits in the wings waiting. Amor’s brother, Anton, paralysed by his traumatic experience in the army, is a man who struggles to do anything more than sponge off others. The sister, Astrid, also unlikeable, is spoilt yet suffers from problems we are given no clue about.

Yes, this is an unusual novel full of beautiful writing, yet sharply satirical, and humorous, almost slapstick in parts.

“The old minister is a large, soft man, with a sideways wave of crinkly brown hair. Much about him has a crumpled look, … And the skin on his hands and neck and face, all that’s visible of him, is loose and lined, and you really wouldn’t want to see the rest, under his clothes. ‘

I did enjoy this book although found the omniscient narrator style a trial at times. Yet, I can’t get it out of my head. It’s one that will resonate with me for some time.

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