Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The promise, is one of those novels that grabbed me intellectually and emotionally from its opening pages. The plot, itself, is straighforward. It concerns a White South African family’s promise to give a house on their property to their Black maid, whom their grandfather had acquired “along with the land”. The narrative tracks just how hard it is for the family to honour this promise. What makes the novel a Booker-Prize winner is the quality of the writing and how Galgut uses his story to create a potted history of South African life and politics in the post-Apartheid decades.
The novel is set between 1986 and 2018, and centres on the family, and their farm outside Pretoria. The family comprises Ma, Pa, and their three children, Astrid, Anton and Amor. In the opening pages, the youngest family member, Amor, overhears her dying Jewish mother extract the aforementioned promise from her Afrikaner father to give the house to Salome. Amor wants this promise honoured but achieving it turns out to be much harder than she expected.
The promise was my reading group’s May read and, somewhat unusually for us, it was universally enjoyed. Our ex-South African member used words like sharp, clever, funny, vicious, and said that Galgut nails the South Africa she knew and had experienced.
“something out of true at its centre”
There is so much to say about this book, that it’s hard to know where to start, but the writing is an excellent place, because it truly carries the novel. Particularly effective is the slippery voice (or point-of-view) which shifts perspective and person, sometimes mid-sentence. The effect, among other things, is to implicate us readers in the narrative. It prevents us distancing ourselves from the choices, decisions and behaviours we see. Here, for example, we shift from third to first in a paragraph:
For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family … We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.
And here is a mid-sentence shift from third to second person:
But in truth he’s bored by this man, by his ordinary life and his ordinary wife, just as he’s bored by almost everything these days, all significance leaked away by now, and it doesn’t feel wrong to wait till he’s gone, then get up and wander out into the night, as if you’ve been drinking on your own. You probably have.
Alongside the voice is Galgut’s wordplay, his recognition of the power of words to clarify or obfuscate. Take the irony of the white family’s name, Swart, which means black. But it doesn’t stop there because it is also an archaic word for “baneful, malignant”. Take also the narrator’s frequent self-corrections that always nail home a point, like:
“So Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place.” (Which reminds us that the promise has not been enacted.)
“He no longer calls himself dominee, he’s a pastoor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” (Which tells us something about this man of the church’s real motivations.)
Then there’s the idea of promise itself. What a loaded word that is. While this is the story of a family, The promise is ultimately a political novel, so Galgut deftly plays with the idea of “promise” in more ways than one. The novel opens and closes with false promises, related to the historical realities of 1986 and 2018, as well as to the family’s inaction. It also teases us with the idea that the end of Apartheid would bring the promise of a new South Africa, but it shows that ideal foundering. The failure of the country to live up to its promise is paralleled in the character of Anton who, at the beginning of the novel, is “full of promise”, as he describes himself in his unfinished autobiographical novel, but who, by the end, admits that he has not lived up to it:
He’s still stunned by the simple realisation that’s just struck. It’s true, I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do … Not ever going to do much of anything.
(Note the slip from third to first to third person, here!) There are many failed promises in the novel, including a minister’s failure to keep a confession.
Other motifs threading through the novel include the four funerals in four different religions/belief systems that shape the narrative’s four parts, and the fact that the Swart’s family business is a (failing) Reptile Park. How telling is that! Just think of all the allusions.
The characters are another compelling aspect of the novel. As an epigraph-lover, I can’t resist sharing Galgut’s from Frederico Fellini:
This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’ With this metallic voice she continued, ‘Why is it that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’
What a hoot, and what a great epigraph choice. It immediately challenges us to consider what is “normal”, if such exists, and puts us on the alert about notions of normality. Galgut’s characters – even the minor ones like Lexington the driver (who “brings the Triumph to the front steps”), the homeless man (“as he keeps obsessively singing the first line to Blowin’ in the wind, let’s call him Bob”), and the various funeral workers – are carefully differentiated, and add depth to the picture being painted of a family and country in crisis. The irony is, I think, that each is disconcertingly normal – in their own way!
Early in the novel, the narrator describes the recently departed Ma’s spirit lingering around the house:
She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.
“Vague and adrift” perfectly describes Astrid, Anton and Amor, none of whom have it together. The “quiet and attentive” Amor, however, is at least empathetic, and therefore the most sympathetic. She constantly shows heart, but, having little power in the family, her solution is to disappear at every opportunity, and live a spartan life, working as a nurse among the most needy. Could she have done more sooner?, is the question worth asking.
So, what is the takeaway from this novel? My reading group was unanimous in feeling that the novel is underpinned by the idea that when one group has an unhealthy position of power over another, both are diminished, if not destroyed. It is to Galgut’s credit, however, that he explores this without didacticism. We are never told what to think. Instead, he presents his characters’ thoughts, actions and decisions, and leaves us to consider what it all means.
We are also given this:
No truthful answers without cold questions. And no knowledge without truth.
The wonder of this book is that such a strong and serious story can be so exciting to read.
Lisa also loved it.
ISBN: 9781473584464 (Kindle ed.)