The Promise

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Recipient of the 2021 Booker Prize, Damon Galgut’s 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 book’s 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 family’s 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 Ma’s 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 mother’s last words: “I really want her to have my house.”

The request 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 didn’t want to do, too dirty or intimate.”

“I really want her to have something,” Rachel tells Manie. “After everything she’s done.”

I understand, is his response.

“Promise me you’ll 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, Amor’s 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.”

Galgut has 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. Galgut’s 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 Kingdom’s 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 Galgut’s previous novels–-“The Good Doctor” and “In a Strange Room”–-were short-listed for the award.

(Published by Europa Editions)