By Damon Galgut
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The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.Tweet
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14 of us gathered (and 3 sent in reviews/comments and scores) to discuss our April 2022 reads which included The Promise. A summary of comments and views :-
Enjoyed it enormously - eye opening, detailed portrayal of a decaying regime as epitomised by one white South African Afrikaans family over 4 decades- their arrogance, hypocrisy,complexities of religion and tradition, and the subtleties of oppression. Was Amor really so perfect or just another in this family suffering from trauma?
Narrator breaks the 4th wall and addresses the reader directly at times.
Found the writing style tricky at first - whose viewpoint were we hearing - sometimes the narrator, sometimes inside two different character’s heads in the same passage. Told in the present tense and again no speech marks!
Listening to the BBC Sounds/Book at Bedtime version broadcast over 10x15 minute abridged sections was very helpful and enjoyable.
Enjoyed the humour and some of the eccentricities of some of the obnoxious characters in the family.
A powerful beginning
Read the book in one afternoon. Good structure with each character’s story/viewpoint skilfully woven together. Slight ennui with it being yet another historical novel.
Enjoyed the portrayal of the family members - all damaged and tormented . Women - bored,and unfulfilled lives with no role in life so had affairs, facelifts, shopped, went to meditation classes.
Portrayal of corruption and decay in S African society, the Church, Police, politics and the family. Galgut wrote this story for S Africans to read ( not aimed at being a prize winner) - he is critical, saddened and cynical about the myth of the “rainbow nation”. A country divided and troubled under various regimes- violence, unrest,
Didn't like it at all. Struggled with it and really couldn't get into it. Found the writing style dull
Did The Promise really happen?
Booker prize? Was it a worthy winner? Who decides? Some debate.
Little from the viewpoint of the black community who are portrayed mainly as servants, hijackers, etc but then Galgud’s intention was to focus on the Swart family.
8 of us had read it and we received comments and scores from 3 absent members one of whom is married to a White Afrikaans SAfrican. Total score of 76 with scores ranging from 5 to 9 with an average of 7.6
I can understand why this won the Booker Prize. With great economy, it reflects on the history of South Africa through an exploration of the fates of a white South African family and a broken promise to Salome, the black woman who works for them. Each of the four parts is structured around a death.
I found that the best way to read this book was to take each part in a single long-ish session. The narrative voice shifts seamlessly from character to character and there are no obvious places within each part to stop that flow. Technically, the novel is highly accomplished.
Black voices are, however, largely absent. I would have liked to know more about what Salome thought. Many of the family members are caricatures and insufficient time is spent with any of them for them to feel fully fleshed out.
I admired the book more than I loved it but would still recommend it.
Thank you to the Reading Agency for supplying copies to Gloucester Book Club
Through four decades in the life (and deaths) of the Swart family Galgut holds a mirror up to society as a whole in post-apartheid South Africa.
The story is told in four sections, each framed around the death and funeral of one of the family. The narration is fluid, switching frequently between points of view. Initially, this felt difficult to follow, especially as some of these transitions are so seamless that they can be easily overlooked, however, it soon became more familiar and I appreciated it as it seemed to add a lyrical, poetic rhythm to the narrative and is done very well. I'm told that this experimental style of writing was born out of a period of time spent writing for screen, which makes a lot of sense, as there is certainly a filmic quality about it that I've not found in other books.
Having little experience or knowledge about South African history, I found the way the novel expressed racial tensions through the characters in the family and those around them, particularly the black servants, was very accessible and thought-provoking. The lack of voice given to the black characters seemed to be a deliberate device used to further impress upon the reader the disparity between them and the Swarts, which some may find jarring considering the setting and political backdrop for this novel, but which I found quite a powerful allegory.
All in all, a worthy winner of the 2021 Booker prize, and also quite possibly the best Booker nominated book that I've read.
Review from Diane:
I read The Promise as a member of Gloucester Book Club. At first I found the style disconcerting as character names were dropped in without previous reference, causing me to look back ("who is Marcus?", "who is Livingstone?" , "why is the car make funny when you haven't told us what make it is yet?") but it all conveyed presumably the chaos of South Africa at the time. I enjoyed the book more the second time I read it as I could relax and enjoy the immersion into the setting without trying to decipher the characters and plot. The structure of four deaths approximately ten years apart, four seasons, four different religious ceremonies, had a pleasing symmetry. The characters were well delineated, although I didn't get much sense of Salome and would have liked more development of her character even if through the eyes of the other characters. I realise the author didn't give her her own voice as a metaphor for the way black South Africans were treated. The changing political climate was conveyed well in each segment. I didn't understand why Salome wasn't given her shack as promised when it was legal to do so as the siblings apparently did want to, but assume that this mirrors the broken promises of whites to blacks in South Africa.
An engaging read with a good sense of place.
Read with Gloucester Book Club in conjunction with the Reading Agency and the book’s editor, Clara Farmer. The Promise is an extraordinarily accomplished novel about a dysfunctional white South African family, spanning several decades from the 80s. It centres around a promise made to Salome, the family’s long-standing black servant.
It’s a challenging read, asking readers to question and reflect, with an array of characters who are flawed and complicated, and not particularly likeable. With unusual narration from almost all characters, it zooms in and out rather like a camera in a film - occasionally turning to the reader to ask questions and to make them take note.
Much has been asked about why Salome has no voice in the novel. This has been explained by author Damon Galgut as deliberate. He wants to draw attention to the fact that even now, post-apartheid, many black people remain unnoticed and have no voice. It reminded me of another South African Booker Prize winner, ‘Disgrace’ by JM Coetzee.
One of the many advantages of winning the Booker is that it catapults the author and South African literature into the limelight. It’s a remarkable novel and a timely winner.
I read The Promise with Gloucester Book Club, through the generosity of Penguin Random House UK and The Reading Agency, on the basis of a free copy for a fair review.
The Promise, by South African author Damon Galgut, is the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize.
Superficially, this is a family saga. The Promise charts the downfall of an entitled, racist, white South African family over 4 family funerals and 30 years odd following the collapse of the Apartheid regime. A family which is a product of its time and whose time is ending rapidly and dramatically. The novel draws us into their many internal family issues and frailties, focusing on the family’s reluctance to honour the promise apparently extracted from the patriarch, by the dying mother, to give their black servant, Salome, the house she occupies on the family farm.
However, on a higher, political level, the unfulfilled promise seems to be much more than just the promise about Salome’s house; rather, a metaphor more generally for the failure of the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” promise to black South Africans of a meaningful democracy, opportunity and prosperity for all.
The characterisation of family members is very well observed and the changes in each of them are well portrayed and believable.
Galgut employs a narrative voice which, very cleverly, bounces about everywhere, flits between first and third person, and acts like a hyperactive Greek Chorus with witty and judgmental asides to the reader. This is very enjoyable, at times funny, then accusatory, and goes outside normal story-telling conventions. There is a cinematic feel to this voice, which may have been influenced by Galgut’s break, during writing this novel, to write two screenplays.
The elephant in the room throughout is Salome and the absence of her voice, her story. Although I would have liked to know more about her life, I accept the reasoning given by Galgut for telling us very little about her: the greater importance of portraying her as invisible; in the way that, to most white South Africans, even post Apartheid, the blacks are “invisible”, do not count and do not have a voice.
I thoroughly enjoyed "The Promise" and all the discussions we had in book club around it. I would highly recommend it to other readers.
Flawless and very clever storytelling. Damon Galgut manages to write an engrossing tale that is interesting, entertaining and very thought provoking but also sharply political without being heavy or preachy. It is beautifully observed with just the right amount of attention to detail. Set in sunny South Africa the novel charts the gradual downfall of a well off white farming family which in turn, through all the complications, regulations and implications illuminates the simultaneous dismantling of apartheid. A brilliant book.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book but I found myself riveted by it. The author manages to handle bleak and politically-charged themes with a lightness of touch which prevents the book from becoming depressing or heavy-going. Through the complex, believable characters the author shines a light on South Africa's ongoing process of coming to terms with its history and its present.
I found The Promise very interesting in terms of its characters, narrative devices and the structure. Its narrative keeps switching perspective, sometimes with a third person narrator and sometimes from the point of view of a character, chopping and changing rapidly between them. At times the narrative voice is very playful, stating one thing and then changing it, for example, stating there was a cat and then that there was not a cat. This is a fascinating device making us question the story but also to see events from multiple points of view.
It tells the story of a South African farming family at 4 different points in time, at 4 family funerals. This is fascinating in showing the change in characters over time, and the change in their relationships with each other and those outside the family, as well as the change in South Africa's turbulent history. We think it might win the Booker Prize!
I've come only recently to reading novels, and this is the best I've read so far. I wonder if it is because the family dynamics feel so real and reflect much of my own experience: siblings being so completely different and unable to understand each other; being unable to allow each other to change and grow; being unable even to talk about the things which are so deeply felt. I also found it helpful to really get inside the head of each character - somehow the style of first/third person and its fluidity helped with that.
I related a lot to Amor as my daughter has described to me how neurodiversity impacts on how you see and experience the world, and it felt like there was a lot of similarity between my daughter's descriptions and way of seeing the world, and Amor's, so for me this felt like the most attractive of the characters. Also, the irony for me of Amor living the most Christian values, whereas those who professed to be operating from their religious perspectives appear to be the most distant from them.
I found the wider picture of South Africa, and how the gradual shifts in attitudes were reflected in the changing family situation interesting and powerful. But change is slow, corruption so endemic, and racist attitudes so entrenched that even the ray of hope that Amor shone one could imagine being snuffed out easily.
Some of the main protagonists seem to have almost brought about their own demise: Pa through his obsession with his reptiles and misplaced expression of faith; Astrid through flaunting the thing (her posh car) which was the epitome of the rich lifestyle that she so desired; Anton through his inability to face himself and continually running away from himself to the extent that he could see no future. Yet Amor appeared to be able to accept herself, give herself to others and through delivering on the promise provide hope and a future. In a way her lifestyle of almost drifting, but directed by giving, contrasted so strongly with Anton's drifting which was directed by a running away from things.
I really enjoyed the book, and found it a fascinating read on many different levels.
This novel paints a depressing view of South African society from the 1960s during the tensions of the end of apartheid. Religious division is shown through the family central to the plot, exemplifying racism, greed, political corruption, and hypocrisy. Amor, whose story begins and ends the narrative thinks differently from her father and siblings, that a promise made to their servant should be honoured, that she should have ownership of the hovel in which she and her son live. Each dysfunctional character is tellingly portrayed, and life on a farm in the African veldt near Pretoria is well-described, so that scenes come alive to the reader.
St Barbara’s Book Group