By Acacia Caven
“A surprising number of writers are very good; few are extraordinary … Damon Galgut is of this rare company” writes Claire Messud for Harper’s. Her commendation doesn’t fall flat – Galgut’s latest novel, The Promise (2021), follows on from his earlier successes (The Good Doctor, 2003; The Impostor, 2008; In a Strange Room, 2010) while showing intrinsic growth for the author – returning to his South African roots, but with a refreshing style and voice. Winner of The Booker Prize 2021, the novel follows the lives of the (ironically named) Swart family; descendants of the Voortrekker Afrikaners; ‘farmers’ on the Highveld; through the end of apartheid, the Mandela era, all the way up to 2018. The story of the Swarts is split into four parts, built around four funerals, and stretches forty years through arguably South Africa’s most tumultuous period.
The novel opens in 1986 – apartheid is failing, and South Africa is a country at war, but the Swarts, in their entitlement, do not dwell on problems outside their control. The mother, Rachel, has died after a long battle with cancer and the family gathers for her funeral. Amor, 13, is brought home from boarding school, Anton, 19, from his military service and Astrid, 17, still lives at home. The three children, together with their father, Manie, join to contemplate their new reality. Over the next 300 pages, we see through – and into – the minds and lives of these characters as they navigate their dwindling family numbers.
The Swarts seem to drop like flies. Each section – named after the family member that dies within it – covers only a few days, each around 10 years apart: charting deaths, funerals, and the surrounding days. The ‘promise’ of the title, elicited from Manie by their dying mother, was to give Salome, their black housemaid, the rights to the house she lives in in recognition of all she did caring for Rachel in her illness. One by one, the members of the family have the power to fulfil the promise – and it becomes a sort of curse as one by one, they fail to do so. Galgut deliberately restricts us from Salome’s perspective throughout the novel, and black perspectives in general, further emphasising the segregation of South Africa, and the dismissive attitude of the Swart’s.
Yet, for all the simple tangibility of the plot, Galgut’s text is anything but. He plays with narrative form and pacing – his shining trope the stretching and condensing of time. “Outside, it is night. It is night, the same night, but later, the stars have moved on,” the narrator claims, jumping forwards in an instant. It is bewildering to follow, these skips through time, space, mind, and age; the text and narration are constantly in flux, evolving with the characters (or not) and corralling you to keep reading, to see where you are going to go next.
Galgut’s developed style is reminiscent of the more classic modernist writer; the influences of authors like Woolf and Faulkner can be seen as we follow a prayer search for its intended, or we’re thrown into the mind of a jackal. The way the narrative flits and flies between the characters internal dialogues, omniscient narration, and spectral blend of the two is a fantastic example of neo-modernism and reads as an almost cinematic experience. While admittedly the disjointed and constantly shifting narrative style is jarring at first, we are soon sucked in. In Galgut’s own words, “the narrator … behave[s] like a camera, moving in close and then suddenly pulling far back, jumping from one character to another in the middle of a scene (or even a sentence), or following some side-line of action that has nothing to do with plot.” His new approach is effective. Formally, stylistically, and narratively, The Promise sings, its voice somehow choral. Each (white) character’s voice is heard, layered over one another in a way that demonstrates their shared perspectives and therefore positions us as one of them.
At times, Galgut overtly signals his stylistic intentions – “a man who leans out of the scene, bloodshot eyes fixed only on me” claims the narrator, briefly inhabiting Anton and speaking first-person, where a sentence before it was in third. The lack of main character (although Amor begins and ends the story) and the snide narrative asides position the reader as an extension of the Swart family, including all their prejudices: “if Salome’s home hasn’t been mentioned before it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know” we read, and are struck with instant guilt – the fourth wall is shattered. Galgut repeatedly draws us into the narrative, before forcibly kicking us out: he explicitly calls out any immersion in the Swart’s lives and any lack of judgement or questioning regarding the discriminatory and oppressive, thought processes that permeate the novel.
Galgut is well known for his unapologetic interrogation of post-apartheid South Africa; The Promise reads as a complex and fluid metanarrative, filled with allegories and anecdotes, through which we see the political tensions in the country condensed into the lives of one family. The trajectory of the novel balances not only on the explicit promise made by Manie to his dying wife, but intertwines the promises made by a nation, to itself, and some of the perspectives that impeded their fulfilment. How can a nation – in which even the promise of a ramshackle house to a woman who’s committed her life to one’s service goes unfulfilled for 30 years – ever reconcile the wrongdoings and injustices imposed on millions of lives? The saying goes: ‘Time heals all wounds’, but The Promise suggests that this may not always be true. Often, it seems to say, the passage of time causes some wounds to worsen, until they can never be healed.
It is Galgut’s deliberate and delicate navigation between larger societal issues and a microcosmic family saga, interspersed with his iconic dry humour and lack of fear in ‘calling out’ the reader, that positions it as deserving winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Galgut has made a beautiful comeback after his seven-year hiatus – The Promise brings him alongside other iconic South African authors like Coetzee and Gordimer. His introspective and unflinching depiction of South African history, combined with an experimental, modernist form and style, shows exceptional growth from Galgut. Juggling politics, race, death, religion, and community, The Promise is an emotional and effective piece of art; its win builds on the Bookers successes of recent years (Shuggie Bain; Girl, Woman, Other) and may help to maintain the prizes standing as the best in the industry.
Acacia Caven is a current student of the M.A. Literature Today at Utrecht University. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in the UK, Acacia provides a personal, international perspective on literary topics. Her experience as Editor-in-Chief of Expanded Field has helped her develop an understanding and critical eye for creative writing in many (experimental) forms. Her recent work centers around contemporary literature and post-colonial voices, both in text and on stage.
Galgut, Damon. The Promise. Chatto & Windus, 2021.