Damon Galgut’s outstanding 2021 novel The Promise was, for me, a worthy winner of the Booker prize, and is definitely one of my top reads of 2021, though to describe the book as a ‘family saga’ – as many reviews have done – is reductive. The book rises way beyond the banal expectations that those two words might conjure up.
The book opens with the untimely death from cancer of Ma, 40-year-old Rachel, who leaves a husband, two adolescent daughters – inscrutable Amor and flighty Astrid – and a slightly older son, the impulsive and sensitive Anton (my favourite). All of these people are complex and flawed to a greater or lesser degree, but all feel like fully rounded, real people. And in the background is the quiet presence of Salome, the family’s black domestic servant, and an unfulfilled promise, made at Ma’s deathbed, of the right to her own home, her own property.
The narrative follows this wealthy, property- and land-rich white South African family and their declining fortunes over a period of about 30 years, covering the time immediately before and the decades immediately following the collapse of apartheid.
The novel is cleverly structured in four parts, each part based around a different funeral, which enables the narrative to leave the main characters frozen at one snapshot moment in time, before cutting forward chronologically to the next significant point of crisis and connection.
There are serious issues here, not least endemic racism, and a revolving backdrop of riots, Presidents and political trials, but the narrative bounces along with a sense of fatalistic glee. The book is never bland, predictable or slow: Galgut has a unique narrative voice, and this work is at once highly literary and grittily down-to-earth in its prose style, while the story confidently balances bleak humour and even some supernatural/magical realist elements without ever over-stretching patience or lapsing into solipsistic self-indulgence. And amid the merry-go-round of death and disappointment (I mean that’s real life, huh?) this an enormously enjoyable book.
I’ll finish with a quote taken from the first page of the book, for flavour:
“It hasn’t happened, not actually. And especially not to Ma, who will always, always be alive.
I’m sorry, Miss Starkey says again, covering her big teeth behind thin, pressed-together lips. Some of the other girls say Miss Starkey is a lesbian, but it’s hard to imagine her doing anything sexy with anyone. Or maybe she did once and has been permanently disgusted ever since. It’s a sorrow we all have to bear, she adds in a serious voice, while Tannie Marina trembles and dabs at her eyes with a tissue, though she has always looked down on Ma and doesn’t care at all that she’s dead, even if she isn’t.“