It’s been a while since I read a novel this good. The Promise by Damon Galgut is the work of an author at the top of his game, in complete control of the narrative and the language. This multi-layered story is both gripping and quietly devastating. The crumbling of the Afrikaner Swart family, living in the shadows of South-Africa’s brutal history, deals with the personal and the political, in perfect balance. I haven’t read all the books on the Booker short-list yet, but this, for sure, is one that deserves to win.
The first thing that strikes you is the omniscient narrating voice seamlessly shifting from one character to the next, occasionally talking directly to the reader. The story starts in 1986 as Rachel dies after a long illness. Her 13-year-old daughter Amor, the moral backbone of the novel, is making her way home to their farm from boarding school. Her brother Anton, a soldier haunted by the memory of having shot a black woman, is returning as well. At home we meet their fickle sister, Astrid, their father, Manie, and bossy, bigoted aunt Marnie and husband Ockie.
Salome, their loyal black housekeeper who lives in a shack on the farm is also there, quietly going about her work. Amor was present when Manie promised Rachel that Salome would get ownership of the shack and feels it’s time to deliver on that promise. This promise, the symbol of white promises to black South-Africans when apartheid was lifted, runs like a red thread through the novel. The novel jumps forward to a post-Apartheid South-Africa. Much has changed but not a much as should have changed and another death in the family will bring with it further complications. More deaths and jumps in time will follow.
There is so much in this novel. In fact, as I finished it, I wanted to read it again, to make sure I’d picked up on all the subtle references. There’s racial tension, family tension, religious and political tension. There’s greed, grief and betrayal. The language, playful and serious, sarcastic and crude, twists and turns and catches you by surprise, and, at times, makes you jolt.
I’d recommend not reading reviews of this book as many of them curiously contains spoilers that will ruin the experience. Just dive in. I can assure you that you’re in for a sublime reading experience.
The Promise by Damon Galgut is published by Chatto & Windus, 304 pages.