Booker book review #4 – “The Promise”

The fourth of my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist – they are coming thick and fast now! This novel is by South African author Damon Galgut, a writer who I’m ashamed to say I had not heard much about before picking up this book, and certainly someone whose work I will turn to again after reading this. This is his eighth novel and the third to be shortlisted for the Booker (he was shortlisted previously for the The Good Doctor in 2003 and In A Strange Room in 2010). He has also written several plays and a collection of short stories.

South African writer Damon Galgut and his novel The Promise, his third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize

The novel centres on the white South African Swart family and spans the early 1980s to contemporary times. More specifically, it charts the decline of the family and the deaths of most of its members, all of them in difficult, tragic or insalubrious circumstances. Their gradual decline, from affluent landowners with servants and status, through corruption and addiction to decay is a metaphor for the country itself, making a tottering transition from apartheid to immature democracy and majority rule and the many and various challenges that presents.

The novel begins with the death of ‘Ma’, Rachel Swart, and the family gathering at the homestead near Pretoria. Her husband Manie (‘Pa’) is grief-stricken, though it is clear that he was a weak husband and in many important ways he was neglectful of his wife. He finds a new devotion now she is dead, although the primary cause of his grief seems to be that she will be buried in the Jewish cemetery, her family having sought to reclaim her in death, and thus he will be unable to lie with her in eternity. Rachel and Manie had three children, Anton, Astrid and Amor, who is only a teenager at the time of her mother’s death and is recalled from boarding school to attend the funeral. Only Amor seems capable of acknowledging and articulating ‘the promise’, the dying wish of her mother that their lifelong servant, Salome, should be granted ownership of the property that she occupies on the family’s estate with her son Lukas. Amor’s concerns are repeatedly dismissed; the family has more important issues to grapple with they insist, but really they are in denial about the direction of travel for South Africa.

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut

There are deep tensions within the family and in this first part of the novel, the scene is set for conflicts that will re-emerge and intensify. Each part of the novel is centred around a death; the second part is the death of ‘Pa’, and the third and fourth, the deaths of Astrid and Anton, Amor’s two elder siblings. After the trauma of her mother’s death Amor becomes increasingly estranged from the family, disappointed by their continual dismissal of her efforts to ensure her mother’s promise to Salome is fulfilled, and feeling increasingly separate from them and their narrow-minded selfishness and bigotry.

But Anton can see once more inside his sister, cold and clear as the clapper of a bell, that it’s her own death she’s feeling. If it can happen to our father, it can happen to me. This nothing, this state of Not. She mourns herself in terror.

Death and the fear of it pervade this novel, yet death also stalks all of them.

The characters make this novel and the author explores each member of the Swart family deeply. He probes their motivations, their neuroses, their most-private thoughts and fantasies. They are all profoundly flawed and their ends are inevitable. In addition to the main members of the Swart family, there is a strong supporting cast, from Manie’s overbearing sister, Marina and her husband Ockie, always inappropriate, which would be laugh out loud if it were not so tragic, and Alwyn Simmers, the lacklustre, half-blind priest who manages to persuade Manie to build a church on the farm land. Plus of course there is Salome, almost-invisible, always ignored and yet who remains loyal to the family and outlives them all.

I loved this book, with the twists and turns of events that befall the family, the insightful portrayal of character and the parallels drawn between the rotten centre at the heart of the Swart family and the governing authorities of South Africa who continually let the people down.

Sometimes it’s South Africa that disappoints her. Who could have foreseen that her daddy, who everybody used to respect and fear, would have to go in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admit to doing those horrible and necessary things? The problem with this country in her opinion, is that some people just can’t let go of the past.

The thoughts of Desirée, Anton’s wife, and daughter of an apartheid-era government minister

This book is highly recommended and surely a strong contender to win.

Author: Julia's books

Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly.

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