Damon Galgut || The Promise

Shortlist 2021

Galgut has written a clever novel that through the use of four different perspectives allows us to look inside the lives of the main characters at the same time subtly giving us insight the South-African state of mind. When the novel is situated does not become explicit, that South-Africa is about to change comes along loud and clear.

The central focus of the novel is on the Swart family. Galgut has divided their stories into four parts: Ma, Pa, Astrid and Anton. The reason why become obvious whilst reading on. Only daughter Amor is lacking from this structure. Her perspective though definitely is dealt with. The most intriguing element of The Promise being the fact that Galgut shifts from perspective continually. Sometimes even in the middle of a paragraph. Starting with Pa, switching to the preacher and back again. As a reader you are constantly alert on getting the perspective right. Is it one of the characters or maybe even the narrator?

The narrator in this case is not all-knowing. He/she is more of an outsider who comments on the situation from time to time, reflects, never making annoying remarks like ‘if only Amor had known …’. This narrator adds another layer of depth to the novel, making sure that all the  personal perspectives of the main and other characters become part of a bigger picture. A style element that works exceptionally well.  

The Swart family is not your average South-African white family. Ma has given up her own religion on marrying, only to return to Judaism when she is dying. A source of pain and frustration for her husband, who by the way is completely under the spell of a manipulative preacher. Ma is also the one who has her husband promise that he will gift the house she has been living in for ever to maid Salome. Amor is the only one who is willing to actually act on the promise, her father and siblings refuse to discuss the matter. Her family neglecting the dying wish of Ma causes a permanent rift between Amor and the others.

What I loved about The Promise is the fact that Galgut only uses a minimum of information in order to paint a picture of the family. He does not need elaborate descriptions to typify them. As a result the Swart hardly develop as persons, which does not really matter. The family members do not stand on their own, the each represent a type of South-African or even universal person any reader could recognize.

The Promise is a cleverly constructed novel in which Galgut makes perfect use of elements of style. The changes in perspective in combination with the type casting of the family make for a sharp novel that tells a lot in few words. The many changes in perspective also make for a certain lightness, something the demanding topic can use.

The Promise is the type of novel you keep dwelling on. The topic is timeless and universal. Galgut fortunately the type of writer who manages to balance literary quality and message. He combines them in a splendid manner. I am pretty sure The Promise is a sturdy contender for the Booker in 2021.

About booksandliliane

I am an avid reader and love to share my love for literature. I have my own opinion on books that have been shortlisted, laureated by critics or are pushed on us by bookstores. I will try and explain why I like or do not like a book. Hopefully influencing you in your choice of books to read.
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2 Responses to Damon Galgut || The Promise

  1. The Promise was one of the books I was most looking forward to reading this year, having been a Galgut fan since reading his In a Strange Room (also short listed for the Booker many years ago). It did not disappoint. As you point out in your review, Galgut managed a seamless fusion of style and substance, with each reinforcing the other (if that makes sense). I also enjoyed the dark humor.
    I did think it was interesting that, despite his many shifts in perspective, Galgut never really gave us the direct viewpoint of Salome (as I recall, there’s is a scene never the end where her son, Lucas, tells Amor what he thinks of her family’s “charity”).

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