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Damon Galgut’s The Promise is a complicated, moving, intelligent novel about the decline of the Swarts, a bigoted Afrikaner family, in post-apartheid South Africa. The book begins shortly before the death of Rachel Swart, a recently converted Jewish woman who asks her husband, Manie, to give their Black maid, Salome, the tiny, dilapidated house in which she already lives on the Swart family’s land. This interaction is witnessed by the couple’s daughter, Amor, who spends the next thirty years trying to convince both her father and her two siblings to honour her mother’s wish.
Starting in 1985 and ending in 2018, the novel is divided into four sections and spans four decades. Each section centres around the funeral of one member of the Swart family and is set during a defining era of South Africa’s history: from the State of Emergency to Mandela’s era, Mbeki’s inauguration, and finally Zuma’s reign.
Amor is thirteen years old, history has not yet trod on her. She has no idea what country she’s living in. She has seen black people running away from the police because they’re not carrying their passbooks and heard adults talking in urgent, low voices about riots in the townships and only last week at school they had to learn a drill about hiding under tables in case of attack, and she still doesn’t know what country she’s living in. There’s a State of Emergency and people are being arrested and detained without trial and there are rumours flying about but no solid facts because there is a blackout on news and only happy, unreal stories are being reported, but she mostly believes these stories.
It is Rachel’s promise to Salome that drives the story. But though Amor is determined to honor her mother’s dying wish, her siblings are too preoccupied with their own lives to care. Anton, Amor’s brother, is destined to a life of drifting, forever haunted by the crime he committed during his time in the military. Meanwhile Astrid, her sister, cares only for social climbing and seeking forgiveness for her multiple extra-marital affairs.
There is so much to love about this family saga. Writing in the third person, Galgut switches perspective constantly: often mid-paragraph and occasionally even mid-sentence. At times his narrator addresses the reader directly. It’s a chaotic, energetic style of storytelling, which demands the reader’s full attention. At times I found the way the novel shifts unsatisfying in that I wanted its characters and their relationships to be a little more fleshed out. Regardless, it’s a hugely engrossing novel that doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. I was also impressed with how masterfully Galgut avoids turning this into any sort of redemption story. I can see why Galgut won this year’s Man Booker – I loved it.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Vintage, 2022)
More books by South African authors:
Gardening at Night by Diane Awerbuck
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Wedding by Imraan Coovadia
The Ones With Purpose by Cynthia Jele
African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala
Intruders by Mohale Mashigo
Split Milk by Kopano Matlwa
The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda
The Book of the Dead by Kgebetli Moele
Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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Is it over? Have you finished reading books from everywhere?