Review 2024: The Promise

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.

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Day 995: The Promise

Cover for The PromiseSeveral years ago, I read Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, a nonfiction account of the terrible Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900. So, when one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list turned out to be set in that time and place, I really wanted to read it. It did not disappoint.

Catherine Wainwright has behaved badly, and the result is a scandal that has resulted in her ostracism from her home town of Dayton, Ohio, and cost her livelihood as a performing pianist. In desperation, she writes to an old friend, Oscar Williams, who is a dairy farmer on Galveston Island. Although she has always considered herself his social superior, years ago he proposed to her. She did not accept him, but he is now a widower with a young son. He proposes again and she accepts. She has barely enough money to get to Galveston.

Nan Ogden is a much less sophisticated woman. She was the best friend of Bernadette, Oscar’s wife, and promised her she would take care of Andre, Oscar and Bernadette’s son. Truth be told, she has her own feelings for Oscar. Until Catherine appears, she has hopes that some day she might be Oscar’s wife. Instead, she finds herself a housekeeper for a woman who can barely boil an egg.

We don’t like Catherine at first, but she quickly grows on us as she develops more empathy for other people. As Catherine, Oscar, Andre, and Nan try to sort out their various feelings and relationships, the tension in the novel builds toward the storm. Then the novel becomes truly riveting.

The Promise is especially strong in its sense of place. I’ve been to Galveston when it was so hot I wondered how anyone could live there before air conditioning, let alone wearing corsets and tight clothes. Weisgarber really makes you feel the heat and stickiness.

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