Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Damon Galgut has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice. The Good Doctor delved into a young doctor’s angry melancholy in a remote rural hospital in South Africa; In a Strange Room followed one young South African’s ill-fated journeys across the world. On both occasions, the prize evaded Galgut, but now he’s back again on the long-list with The Promise — and for very good reason.
Galgut’s newest novel is also a meditation on South Africa. This time the theme is tackled through four deaths, charting the slow demise of the Swarts, a white South African family on a farm outside Pretoria. The first death is that of Ma, the mother who decided to return to her Jewish roots before her death, much to the dismay of her non-Jewish family. However, her conversion isn’t the only matter that marks the funeral as an event of tension rather than sorrow.
The youngest of the three Swart children, Amor, is convinced that she heard her mother promise Salome, a Black woman who has served on the farm for years, her own house. Amor is alone in her conviction, however, as no one will listen, and through the following decades that promise lingers on, deepening Swart schisms.
That unfulfilled promise is the central, eponymous one, but others come revolve around it. Anton, the eldest sibling, was meant to be the bright young one, go to university and write a novel, yet he ends up a fugitive from the army and an increasingly embittered man. Astrid, the middle sibling, finds herself cheating on husbands; and Pa, the born-again Christian father, dies of a snake bite in a test of faith. In this world, even gods don’t keep their promises.
The Swart family, though, is just a springboard for a kaleidoscopic exploration of change in South African society from Apartheid to a supposedly fairer system. Galgut achieves this through a breath-taking — and I don’t use that adjective lightly — onslaught of narrators. The Promise offers the written equivalent of a film captured without stopping the camera. It moves seamlessly from the mind of one character to another, so that the story comes filtered through multiple minds. It flows from a priest with less than godly thoughts to weary farm workers to Anton’s wife who has never quite accepted the less racially divided version of her country. At one point, the narrative leaves a church just to be overtaken by a homeless person who takes the story on an excursion to town. It’s a gutsy way to build up a complex of world of views, and it certainly delivers.
One constant in this flow of minds is the wittiness; for a novel revolving around death, The Promise is remarkably funny. Galgut is a sharp observer of people’s self-delusions and how their thoughts wander. In his writing, a funeral mass becomes a firework display of the mourners’ less-than-mournful ideas. He drops in little details here and there to create absurd scenes, such as the preacher whose watch will tell the time every fifteen minutes, even during a sermon, or Moti, the yoga teacher whose middle-class spirituality comes with a satirical punch.
There is also a meta-level to all of it, as the narration regularly turns to comment on its own reality. As one priest goes to the toilet, he observes: “Odd that people hardly ever talk about their motions, considering it’s an everyday event. The brain would like to deny it, despite the fundamental truths being uttered down below. No character in a novel ever does what he’s doing now, i.e. pulls his buttocks apart the better to blurt out his distress.” And yet, this is exactly what Galgut does, turning the mundane and even gross into something much more clever.
Third time lucky, I want to say. However, luck should have nothing to do with it when there is a novel as deserving of the Booker as The Promise. Prize or not, though, the one promise that doesn’t go unfulfilled is the completely exceptional nature of this book.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Damon Galgut, The Promise (Chatto & Windus, 2021). 978-1784744069, 260 pp., hardback.
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