REVIEW by Willard Manus
of the 2021 Booker Prize, Damon Galguts THE PROMISE tells the story
of a South African family, the Swarts, which falls apart over a thirty-year
period, mirroring the fate of the country itself.
The books four long chapters trace the fortunes of the family members
as they try and cope with societal change and personal problems. Death
also impinges on them, beginning with the demise of the familys
matriarch, Rachel, who late in life spurned the Dutch Reformed Church
and returned to Judaism (much to the dismay of her Afrikaner relatives).
Only her 13-year-old daughter Amor respects Mas decision to reclaim
her faith. A strange, quirky but stubbornly honest girl, she becomes the
moral center of the family even as she becomes alienated from it.
What separates Amor from her siblings is her keen sense of right and wrong,
her conscience. No matter what happens, Amor will never forget her mothers
last words: I really want her to have my house.
was addressed to her husband Manie, a gambler and whoremaster, and it
concerned Salome, the black woman who had toiled for the family for decades,
sweeping and cleaning the house and washing the clothes of those who lived
in it. Salome had also looked after Ma through her last illness,
dressing and undressing her, helping her to go to the toilet, yes, even
wiping her arse for her after she used the bedpan, mopping up blood and
shit and puss and piss, all the jobs that people in her own family didnt
want to do, too dirty or intimate.
I really want her to have something, Rachel tells Manie. After
everything shes done.
I understand, is his response.
Promise me youll do it. Say the words.
I promise, Pa says, choked-sounding.
But of course once Rachel dies the promise is forgotten-or ignored,
depending on which family member is concerned. Manie reneges on his vow;
Astrid, Amors older, shallow sister, denounces it; Anton, the drunken,
dissolute brother, overlooks it (guiltily, though). Only Amor, who has
moved far from the family and has become an AIDS hospital nurse, continues
to honor it.
While the Swarts battle each other, a larger battle is being fought in
the world around them. South Africa goes from white to black rule, with
Mandela at the helm and society going through vast changes and upheavals.
Galgut does a masterful job in weaving the public and the personal, making
for a complex but vivid tapestry. As he explains at one point, We
rise out of nature into culture, but you have to fight to keep your lofty
perch, otherwise nature pulls you back down.
unique narrative gifts. Each of his chapters has a main character but
the authorial point of view is flexible; other characters slip in and
take center stage, only to effortlessly step aside. Galguts prose,
which is often spiced with mordant humor and bawdy sex, is equally masterful.
The novel catches you up and holds you in its spell from start to finish.
The Booker Prize is the United Kingdoms most prestigious literary
award. Once limited to novelists living in the British Commonwealth, it
has been open since 2013 to any novel written in English and published
in the U.K. Two of Galguts previous novels-The Good
Doctor and In a Strange Room-were short-listed
for the award.
(Published by Europa Editions)