Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, The Promise (Penguin Random House 2021) by Damon Galgut is a sweeping family saga that follows several characters over many decades, providing vignette scenes of intimate minutiae encompassed in an impressive overall picture of not just a family but an entire nation and its culture and politics.
The title is both literal and metaphorical. A white South African family is gathered for the funeral of Ma, who on her deathbed, promises a house and parcel of land on their vast property to Salome, the black maid who has cared for her perhaps more than anyone. But after Ma’s passing, somehow time marches on and the promise is never fulfilled. Two of her children, Anton and Amor, want desperately at the time to honour her wishes, but in the midst of extended family dramas, the chance to do the right thing gets further and further away, until some begin to question whether it was ever a promise at all.
This is set against the backdrop of the changing political tide in South Africa, where promises of fairness and equality have been made to entire sections of the population, but again, time passes, and the actual fulfilment of these promises seems more difficult than the words that represent them.
This novel is raw, moving and powerful. It allows the reader a bird’s eye view into the Swart family on their farm in Pretoria, and the complex racial and cultural machinations that go on around them. We see the interiority of both Anton and Amor in particular detail. In fact, the author moves fluidly from character to character, giving us different perspectives and challenging all the rules of writing: we go from one point of view to inside the head of another; some is written in the second person, addressing the reader as ‘you’; the lens shifts languidly from person to person, place to place, wrongfooting the reader with sudden changes and swerves. Only an experienced and talented writer could pull this off without it becoming confusing. Galgut not only does it well, but he draws the reader into this ethereal, almost unreal world, carrying us along as we flit like a butterfly from one perspective to the next.
And beneath the story of this one family, and the promise that seems destined never to be fulfilled, is the larger and confronting reality of a country at war with itself, attempting to honour the promises to its people but hampered by its own history.