Damon Galgut is an excellent writer, but I have had varying reactions to his work. Of what I have read, I liked In a Strange Room best and his last novel, Arctic Summer, least. Despite its having won the 2021 Booker Prize, I feel only a tenuous connection to The Promise.
The novel is about the disintegration of a white South African family over 30 years. It returns to the family roughly every 10 years at the death of a family member.
Thirteen-year-old Amor Swart overhears her dying mother ask her father for a promise. Rachel wants Manie to give the house she’s living in to Salome, the servant who has cared for Rachel and brought up her children. Manie promises, but in the last few years he has fallen under the thumb of greedy Dominee Simmers, so he gives land to the church but does not fulfill his promise and gets angry when Amor asks him about it.
Amor’s brother Anton gives Amor mild support, but he is obsessed by having shot a woman recently during some civil unrest. When he returns to the army after the funeral, he decides to desert.
Nine years later, both siblings return to the family for their father’s funeral. Amor wonders whether the promise will now be kept.
This novel is narrated omnisciently, but the point of view occasionally shifts from one character to another and from one scene to another without warning. It also sometimes takes on a folksy tone, as if the narrator is a storyteller talking directly to the reader.
I felt a lot of distance from Galgut’s characters. The only really sympathetic characters are Amor and Salome, but Salome is only there on the edges—treated in this novel much like she would have been in real life—and Amor is not much of a presence in the novel. We are told she is kind and easy to talk to, but we are not privy to many of her thoughts or or actions as we are to those of some of the other (male) characters. Perhaps that’s why I felt so much distance from the novel.