2021 Booker Prize Longlist: The Promise by Damon Galgut

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2021 Booker Prize Longlist: The Promise by Damon Galgut

Ago 6, 2021, 12:00 pm

This thread is for discussion of The Promise by Damon Galgut. No unhidden spoilers, please.

Set 27, 2021, 7:12 pm

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

This multilayered, rich and insightful Booker Prize shortlisted novel of an ordinary white South African family living in a farm outside of Johannesburg begins in 1986, during the end of the apartheid regime. Rachel Swart has died after a long illness, and her grieving husband and three teenage children convene with extended family to mourn her loss. Just before she died Amor, the introspective and sensitive 13 year old youngest member of the family, overhears a conversation that her parents have in their bedroom, in which Rachel expresses one last wish to her husband:

Do you promise me, Manie?
Holding on to him, skeleton hands grabbing, like in a horror film.
Ja, I’ll do it.
Because I really want her to have something. After everything she’s done.
I understand, he says.
Promise me you’ll do it. Say the words.
I promise, Pa says, choked-sounding.

The she who Rachel is referring to is Salome, the longtime black housekeeper on the Swart farm, who is Rachel's age and one of her closest companions, although she is invisible and given little consideration by the rest of the Swart family, save for Amor. Although it is not overly mentioned Amor interprets her mother's deathbed wish as legally granting the Lombard house, a rundown shack on the edge of the farm, to Salome, a property purchased years ago by Rachel's father to prevent it from being purchased by an Indian family. This promise could not be fulfilled, as blacks were not allowed to own property, and nothing more was said or done at that time.

The novel consists of four chronologically separate parts over four decades, each part corresponding to one of four members of the Swart family: Rachel, her husband Manie, and their two oldest children, Anton and Astrid. The two characters who are constantly present are Amor and Salome, who maintain a warm friendship despite their physical distance, in a changing South Africa where blacks and whites live uncomfortably alongside each other:

But enough, we are the rainbow nation, which is to say it’s a mixed and motley and mongrel assembly in the church today, restive and ill at ease, like antagonistic elements from the periodic table.

The promise that Manie made to Rachel remains unfulfilled, which troubles only Salome and Amor, and it serves as a metaphor for the promise of true equality made to black South Africans after the end of apartheid, as whites continue to hold on to their valuable property, which they view as their birthright and something only to be shared with their descendants.

The Promise is a compelling look into the life of an ordinary white South African family during the waning years of apartheid and the years that followed, which also permits the reader with a glimpse of modern day South Africa, and relations between the two main races, which leaves out the sizable mixed race and Indian communities. I'm a fan of Damon Galgut's work, most notably his novels The Impostor, In a Strange Room, The Good Doctor and Arctic Summer, but this is his best novel yet, and one that is worthy of this year's Booker Prize.

Out 25, 2021, 3:16 pm

>2 kidzdoc: Great review! I agree it deserves the prize and I had hoped and expected I’d love it just as much as you did. Unfortunately I didn’t. It’s probably me. It felt so aloof, if that’s a correct expression, it didn’t touch me in the way I hoped and expected.