The Promise | Damon Galgut

Books | Review

historical fiction | novel | race | contemporary | family saga

First published 2021

The book begins with Rachel's death. The Swarts family live on a farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, and before Rachel's death, Manie promises to give Salome, the family's black maid, the deeds to the house that she lives in. This promise is overheard by Amor, the Swarts' daughter, but after Rachel's death, Manie pretends to have forgotten about making the promise.

The Swarts are a  bigoted family who grow tired of Amor's insistence on keeping the promise they made to Salome. Each chapter of the book is named after a member of the family who ends up dead, with the exception of Amor. The narrator moves fluidly from one point-of-view to the next, like a film reel. Using South Africa's own political turmoil and history used as a backdrop, the family disintegrates before our very eyes.

The novel spans four decades, beginning in 1986 and ending in 2018. In 1995, when the siblings reunite for Manie's funeral, the promise to Salome has still not been fulfilled there is no mention of it in his will. The three Swart children inherit the farm and its surroundings, and Anton promises Amor that he will take care of Salome.

In 2004, Astrid is murdered during a hijacking, and Amor and Anton come together again for yet another funeral. Salome has still not received the deeds to her house and Amor leaves the farm, never to see Anton alive again. 

Following Anton's suicide in 2018, Amor returns to the farm and, as the only remaining member of the Swart family, finally transfers ownership of the house to Salome, giving the novel a cathartic ending and a sense of relief.

My Verdict: This is an incredibly complex novel, just in style. Galgut jumps between first person to third person, breaking the fourth wall at times, and involving you, the reader, in as an accomplice in the story. It's a satirical commentary on post-apartheid South Africa from the point-of-view of a group of extremely privileged, white Afrikaners, who are struggling to understand the new world. Lines of dialogue are interspersed, separated only by slashes, with the narrator filling in some of the gaps for you.


This is a stylistic masterpiece and I absolutely loved it. The story itself is nothing original, but the execution of it is so different and special that Galgut definitely deserves the 2021 Booker Prize. 

Review Award | 5/5

Posted 01.02.2022

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