Booker Prize 2021: The Promise by Damon Galgut

estimated reading time: 3 minutes

She doesn’t consciously know it but there is a somewhat festive air outside, because yesterday was a public holiday, Youth Day, nineteen years since the Soweto uprising, and today it’s the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, South Africa is playing France later, and the pavements throb and throng with bodies. Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!

The eponymous promise in Damon Galgut’s family drama should be easy to keep for the Swarts, the novel’s rich white South African protagonists: to leave to their black servant, Salome, the house she’s lived in while in their service. Initially impossible due to apartheid law, the promise will stay unfulfilled for years to come, as Galgut guides us through decades of Swart family history and of social change in South Africa.

A somewhat obvious stand-in for the collective expectations for the post-apartheid state, the promise is made by the Swart patriarch to his formerly Jewish wife on her deathbed and witnessed by the youngest daughter Amor, who will then go on to become Salome’s main advocate. Due to his own prejudices and the grudge he holds against his wife for having reconnected to Judaism right before her death, even forcing him to hold a Jewish funeral, the father refuses to take his promise into account, leaving it to fester the relationship between Amor and her siblings.

The novel is divided into four parts, each built around a different funeral, but Galgut employs an omniscient narrator, which adds to the epic dimension of the novel. The Swarts and their interpersonal conflicts are just a starting point to talk about death and bigotry (they could be any other white upper class family) and as such most of them are barely resolved. The unfinished novels, the change of careers, the lovers of the Swarts are nothing to a country with high rates of crime and corruption, unending religious and racial conflicts.

To this end, we’re given a glimpse of the interiority of most actors on the page, including a homeless man who “accidentally” wanders into the scene, yet Salome herself always stays a vaguely-defined character in the background. The most immediate criticism one could have of the book, that it leaves its victim an almost faceless extra, is explicitly acknowledged by the narrator and satirically pinned on the reader’s own prejudices. Why didn’t you ask about Salome? The narrator often slips on a distinctive voice and addresses an always-changing reader, possibly white, possibly not.

There are interjections from the author in the margin too. Is this a family saga or a farm novel? one says. And another, Weather is indifferent to history! And also, Is this comedy or tragedy? These interjections take over, till very soon there is no story left, just a rough scheme of what the writer still intended.

The novel seems tailor-made to win the Booker Prize. Written by a twice-shortlisted author, this family saga blends (debatably) subtle social critique with the more intimate conflicts that suit the characters of a contemporary literary novel: they cheat on their spouses, have a mid-life crisis, find and lose spirituality, and did I mention Amor is bisexual and worked as a nurse in a HIV ward? 

Cheekiness aside, what differentiates Damon Galgut from all the other aspiring chroniclers of contemporary society is that his writing ability can handle his ambitious premise. The book is never boring, the reader always intrigued, up to the somewhat open-ended finale where Salome’s now-wrecked house finally seems to have become hers, but with a possible claim on the land by an indigenous community looming on the entire property. 

It isn’t much, she says. I know that. Three rooms and a broken roof. On a tough piece of land. Yes. But for the first time, it’ll belong to your mother. Her name on the title deed. Not my family’s. That isn’t nothing.

Yes, Salome agrees, speaking Setswana. It isn’t nothing.

It is nothing, Lukas says. Smiling again, in that cold, furious way. It’s what you don’t need any more, it’s what you don’t mind throwing away. Your leftovers. That’s what you’re giving my mother, thirty years too late. As good as nothing.

Why it could win

With its unconventional choice of narrator, The Promise manages to paint a poignant and far-reaching portrait of three decades of South African history. And because the third time’s the charm.

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