Review: The Promise by Damon Galgut (2021)

Blurb

Winner of the Booker Prize 2021

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022

A masterpiece of a family in crisis from twice Booker-shortlisted author Damon Galgut

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.

Review

Many thanks to Zara at FMcM and the Rathbones Folio Prize for sending me a finished copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Apologies for the delay!

I’ve read a couple of other works by Damon Galgut, and as a big fan of South African literature, I was thrilled to hear he’d won the Booker. My expectations were high on starting The Promise, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The most striking aspect of this novel is how skillfully the author manipulates the roving point of view, flitting between the characters with a modernist ease reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Stylistically, the book is beautifully wrought, each sentence delicately laced with meaning. intricate and complex, a true lesson in the craft of writing. But it is not a case of style over substance: there is story here too, and character, and moments of tension and heartbreak.

‘The farm’ is a recurring motif in South Africa literature (I won’t punish you by dropping in my decades-old undergrad essay on this topic, though I have to admit this book did have me looking it out!) and here, the Swart family’s smallholding is not only a symbol but also a stage, where various family dramas play out at intervals across the years, shadowed by South Africa’s tumultuous history. The narrator’s role as ‘puppet master’ heightens this sense of theatricality – characters are dropped onstage and then summarily dismissed, and the ‘behind the curtain’ artifice of storytelling is directly commented on.

I think what I loved most about The Promise is that it showcases exactly what a novel, and only a novel, can do when the author is operating at the peak of their powers: it delves into the psyches of fictional characters in order to give us a better understanding of ourselves. The fiction provides a mirror for reality, and truths both beautiful and ugly are brought to light. It is an incredibly powerful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

The Promise by Damon Galgut is published by Vintage and is available to purchase here.

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