New fiction from twice Booker-shortlisted author Damon Galgut
‘Astonishing’ Colm Toibin
‘A literary masterpiece’ Sarah Hall
Galgut’s latest novel, The Promise spans over thirty years. The decades that see South Africa, the international pariah, pitch forward through riots in the townships to a post-apartheid jubilant South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995, and then onto Jakob Zuma’s fall from grace in 2018.
Chapter 1 ‘Ma’ opens on an Afrikaner farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, the Swarts are gathered to bury their mother, Rachel. Manie, his grief curdled by the fury that his wife returned to her Jewish faith shortly before her death. Anton, the eldest son serving his compulsory national service who has returned burdened by an act of violence. Astrid, beautiful and aloof in her emergent sexual awareness. And Amor, “He was always worried, based on nothing tangible about whether Amor is actually his child. The last-born, not planned…” all but invisible. It is Amor that hears her father promise his dying wife that he will give their maid Salome the titles to the house she lives in. This promise, broken, ignored, doubted, seeps like a stain through the years as, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, the family splinters and disintegrates.
The Promise is neatly divided into four extended chapters, each named to deliver insights into and herald the death of a character. Tidy and the only concession to traditional prose Galgut makes. The narrative is strong and totally engaging but the sliding point of view that Galgut employs throughout is what makes this one of the standout books of the year. It flits free floating and omniscient, creating an intimacy with the reader and also allowing for bursts of mordant humour. Highly effective and a total joy.
Promises are continually broken throughout this novel, promises to self, to family, to a nation. Vows made with good intentions, promises inspired by guilt and pledges assured - all broken. However the closing pages offer a sense of restitution “... towards whatever it is that happens next.”
An extraordinary read.