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Of Lies and Broken promises

Book Review of  The Promise by Damon Galgut, the Booker prize winner 2021,

The Promise by Damon Galgut, the Booker prize winner of 2021, has been touted as ‘literary fiction at its finest’. The book examines the legacy of apartheid and straddles almost four decades starting from 1986. Galgut’s works, The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room, were also shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2003 and 2010.

As the name suggests, the book is about a promise made to a dying woman. Rachel Swart lives on a small holding outside Pretoria with her Afrikaner husband Manie and her three children Anton, Astrid and Amor. Ravaged by cancer, she is cared for devotedly by Salome, a black maid who lives in a small annexe on the holding. While dying, Rachel asks her husband to hand over the deed of the annexe to Salome. He promises to do so on her deathbed but does not keep this promise, taking refuge in the law of the land which does not allow the blacks to own property. After his death, the property devolves to the older children Anton and Astrid, who also refuse to discharge their mother’s promise to Salome. It is only after their death, when the property is inherited by Amor, the conscience-keeper of the family, that she hands over the property legally to Salome. But the promise is fulfilled too late. As Lukas, Salome’s son, rants: 'My mother was supposed to get this house a long time back. Thirty years ago. Instead, she got lies and promises’

An unkept promise becomes the crux of the novel and the hubris that destroys Maine, Anton and Astrid. The story seems simple enough, but it has many layers that are peeled off slowly to reveal the truth underneath. It is structured into four sections after the names of the four characters, but it is not a story told in vacuum. The story is set against a political milieu. In fact, the story is inextricably entwined with the politics of the time. The first section, entitled ‘Ma’, is about the death of Rachel Swat and the slow but insistent awakening against apartheid. The second section entitled ‘Pa’, is about the death of Maine and is set against Mandela’s presidency and an element of creeping disenchantment of the politics of the time. The third section deals with the deaths of two other promise breakers, Astrid and Anton and the narrative has as its background the presidency of Thato Mbeki. The denouncement of the novel is tied up with Amor and her Christ-like renunciation of her legacy in favour of Salome. In fact, the story begins and ends with Amor. It starts with Amor overhearing the promise made by Maine to Rachel and ends with the promise finally being fulfilled. The ending suggests a way forward, albeit somewhat flawed and belated. 

The complexity of the layered narrative comes through an omnipotent, free-floating narrator, who jumps from Amor’s conscience-stricken psyche to the scavenging jackals, to Anton’s soliloquy ‘My mother is dead. I killed her.’ At times, the narrator distances itself from the characters and becomes omnipotent and God-like as when Galgut says ‘other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word. Even these.’ At other times it enters the minds of the characters. All, but that of the central protagonist, Salome. This may be a deliberate technique adopted by the writer to enhance and underscore the fact that the blacks are insignificant and invisible to the white populace who had enslaved them for their own needs. A couple of comments made by other characters indicate this as well. In the beginning Amor says 'she was with Ma when she died, right there next to the bed, though nobody seems to see her. She is apparently invisible.' 'She is like a ghost,' as Anton’s wife says, ‘you almost don’t notice them.’ In this creative usage of now-here-now-there narrator, Galgut is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf and Faulkner.

Galgut is a master craftsman of language. The author uses a variation in rhythm and tonal quality suited to the characters as well as the whims of the narrator. Describing a stretch of road lit up by the street lamps, Galgut poetically says ‘stitched out now and then in slow motion by the headlamps of a car.’ At other times, he uses the abrupt pauses and stops in language to reflect the thinking process of the characters. 'One day, she says aloud. One day I’ll. But the thought breaks off mid-way.'

The Promise is a book that leaves you a little sad at the pointlessness of any freedom struggle, where idealism slowly gives way to disenchantment and the resolution is no utopian solution but a battered and torn finale. A book to think and introspect. 

~Neel Prabhakar

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