literary journalism

Damon Galgut’s ‘The Promise’

Damon Galgut’s electrifying new novel tracks the travails of the Swart family—“just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans”—over the span of three decades. The story opens in 1986 with Rachel, the matriarch, dying of cancer at forty. On her deathbed, she has her husband, Manie, promise to give their housekeeper, Salome, ownership of the small house she occupies on the family farm outside Pretoria. The conversation is overhead by their youngest daughter, Amor, who spends the rest of the book trying to have her mother’s dying wish honoured. She is refused first by her father, partly under the pretence that under apartheid, Salome can’t own property, then her siblings, even once it becomes legally possible to transfer the deeds.The failure to do the right thing rains down like a biblical curse on the Swarts. Each of the four sections is named after a family member who dies: after Ma comes Pa, as Manie succumbs to a snake bite while trying to beat a Guinness world record for living among poisonous serpents in his reptile park, Scaly City. (You couldn’t make it up…but Galgut somehow has.) The family’s moral failings are not confined to the unkept bequest. Manie, who found religion when Amor was struck by lightning as a child, is devout but amoral: in addition to denying Salome her due, he tries to thwart Rachel’s wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The eldest brother, Anton, who deserted his military service after killing a black woman protestor, ends up a drunken wannabe novelist. The other sister, Astrid, is a social climber who cheats on both of her husbands, dying unabsolved by their priest.

The narration of The Promise flits between various points of view, switching sometimes mid-sentence—a technique with which Galgut had previously experimented in the linked novellas of In a Strange Room (2010). The narrator of The Promise embodies not only the main characters but alights on others adjacent to the plot, such as the woman preparing Rachel’s body for burial and the family lawyer (to whom “promises don’t mean a thing”), as well as ghosts, jackals, the family dog and the house itself…

Read the review online in the Irish Times

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