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The Promise

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The Promise , winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, 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.

293 pages, Hardcover

First published April 6, 2021

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About the author

Damon Galgut

26 books678 followers
Damon Galgut was born in Pretoria in 1963. He wrote his first novel, A Sinless Season, when he was seventeen. His other books include Small Circle of Beings, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, The Quarry, The Good Doctor and The Impostor. The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Dublin/IMPAC Award. The Imposter was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He lives in Cape Town.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,069 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,714 reviews25k followers
November 3, 2021
Winner of the Booker Prize 2021

Damon Galgut's examines the disintegration of the dysfunctional privileged white Swart family in South Africa, living on a farm outside Pretoria, over a period of over 3 decades. The moral heart of the story, Amor Swart, overhears her dying mother, Rachel, cared for and nursed by her black maid, Salome, extract a promise from her father that Salome will be given her home. In a narrative that revolves around 4 funerals, beginning with that of Rachel, who had reverted back to Judaism, that is taking place amidst the turbulence of the racist apartheid regime's state of emergency, the family, Manie, the father, the troubled son, Anton, and Astrid, the older sister of Amor, fail to fulfil the promise. This promise is additionally an echo of the promise of the birth of the 'rainbow' nation, the truth and reconciliation commission, that has come to lie in tatters amidst the greed, corruption, warped ambitions and violence.

The story jumps from character to character, inhabiting their thoughts and actions, at times like a stream of consciousness, Manie's bitterness at not being able to be buried next to Rachel, his estrangement from an Anton plagued by his killing of a black mother. Anton goes on to desert from the army, an act that comes to be seen as heroic under President Nelson Mandela, undergoing difficult years of being destitute and in debt. Astrid marries Dean, becoming a mother to twins, feeling herself suffocated. Amor lives in London before returning for the funeral of a father that had come under unscrupulous and ambitious religious influences. As Salome is once again left out in the cold, Amor decides to move to Durban and train as a nurse, something neither Astrid or Anton understand. By the time the promise can be fulfilled, more than thirty years later, there are other threats to it being realised, and Lukas, Salome's son is less than grateful, viewing it as an empty gesture.

Galgut depicts a family that has no close links with each other, Amor cannot stomach her morally bankrupt and lost family, squandering their opportunities and dreams, the marital infidelities, the humiliations, the drinking, and the self deceptions. She refuses to benefit financially and makes no attempt to keep in touch. Religion, including the New Age aspects, is portrayed as ambitious, hypocritical, overly judgemental, power hungry and sinning. The fragile and tenuous connections between the family is reflected in the threads holding South Africa together, from the hope displayed at the Rugby World Cup, to the deep fractures, the rising crime, and the compromised integrity in the years that follow. A powerful and engaging read that I think many readers will appreciate. Many thanks to Random House Vintage for an ARC.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,826 reviews1,387 followers
September 15, 2023
Less “Four Wedding and A Funeral” than “Four Funerals and A Partheid”

A book that simply did not work for me despite two readings and whose choice as winner of the 2021 Booker Prize (together with the decision to represent Africa on the longlist by two white South Africans) was the literary lowlight of 2021.

For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from other voices, we sounds the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.

This book is the latest written by an author twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2003 and 2010).

It is effectively a family tale – the Swarts, a white and relatively privileged South African nuclear family of five who live on a farm near Pretoria. Their story and the story of those around them.

The family is

Manie - owner of the farm and later the main family business – a reptile park, over time he grows close to an ex Reformed Church Afrikaans minister

His wife Rachel - who re-converts back to Judaism while she is dying of cancer

And their three children:

Anton - whose unplanned birth out of wedlock lead to a marriage Amor’s family considered a mistake – Anton kills a woman when conscripted to the South African Army and deserts before later marrying his childhood sweetheart Desiree who becomes increasingly involved with New Age and Yoga Practices and the leader of a nearby Ashram

Astrid - who converts to Catholicism, has twins and two unhappy marriages

Amor – something of the irreligious conscience of the family, spending her time nursing AIDS patients, refusing to take the family money or to stay in contact, and the only one who holds to the eponymous promise the dying Rachel extracted from Amor – to give the family’s black maid Salome the deeds to her home in the farmlands

There are two very distinctive parts of the book’s execution:

The first is its cyclical structure. The story (which ranges over several decades) is told at discrete intervals in four sections all based around the funeral of a family member (the sections named after the family member that dies in turn as the nuclear group diminishes - less “Ten Green Bottles” than “Four White Racists”). Each section starts with the circumstances of the death (cancer, snake bite, murder and suicide). Each funeral coincides with an important point of South African history (the rugby world cup victory, Mbeki’s inauguration, Zuma’s resignation). Each is set in a different season. Each has details on the dead body and the viewpoint of the person preparing it for burial. Each features in detail the thoughts of the person carrying out the funeral (and the way their views clash largely with the beliefs of the remaining family members) and each has Amor’s latest attempt to realise the promise.

The second is the narrative voice – a very deliberate and intrusive omniscient narrator which swoops from character to character (including some side characters such as a down and out and a criminal and even at one stage some jackals), switches out of its default third person into first person even second person for the point of view character, sometimes addressing the reader directly and sometimes into a brief first person plural chorus.

I think the book will appeal to a lot of people and I would definitely recommend others to read it

But I have to say it did not quite work for me – and simply felt too gimmicky.

The family is clearly meant as to represent South Africa and the book to serve as an analogy for the nation’s history but this felt overdone to me. One clear example of this being the coincidental linking of the funerals to important events - at one stage a character comments that Manie has “died at a very inconvenient time” and as a reader we can only think that the opposite – that the fictional timing of the fictional death is very convenient for the move. And when combined with the symbolic deaths (and their symbolic natures), the need for understanding and reckoning (and dare I say truth and reconciliation) which arises from them, the examination of the decaying states of the bodies (standing for the nation) and so on – it all seems rather forced. And no experienced novelist, even in possible irony, should have characters remarking on how things are like (or not like) a novel, or have a character member trying but failing to write an autobiographically inspired novel or have characters named ridiculously like a soldier named Private Payne or two detectives named Olyphant, Hunter.

And while I can see people admiring the sheer bravura and dexterity of the narrative voice – I was struggling really to see what admirable it really achieved. One of the effects for example was to have the voice call De Verwoerd “a great man” and the Pienarr/Mandela encounter that of a “beefy Boer and the old terrorist” and I have to say this got my back up a little. And my negative reaction was further exacerbated by the lack of voice really given to Salome, the way her son Lukas is portrayed as angry and ungrateful and the way in which the first non-white character given a significant voice is a murderous car-jacker (followed by a corrupt politician, a corrupt policeman and so on).

Those comments may not be fear but while I went to University in a different era to today’s world of trigger warnings and no-platforming and was not very politically active or aware – but the one area that did affect me politically was the boycott of firms connected to the reprehensible South African Apartheid regime and I am still (to use the phrase) triggered by white South Africans complaining about how their country is now racked with crime and in my personal reading consider no-platforming books written about white South Africans who prospered pre-Apartheid. I say that to put my views into context.

But I am not sure my views are entirely unfounded when I read an interview like this with the author (https://www.newstatesman.com/world/af... - apologies may be paywalled) - where he says that "some are leaving the country, and taking their money with them. I’m not among them – yet – but for the first time the idea is in my mind, and it’s not going away" and I put it in the context of someone who was 30 before South Africa had a democratic election and who I believe did National Service in the apartheid army.

And then on The Radio 4 Front Row Booker Book club the author said with no apparent irony that "“To be a white man in South Africa today is to be disadvantaged as the odds are stacked against you. "

Finally I did not respond at all well to the “plague on all your houses” views of different religious belief.

Overall as I said I can see people liking this book but my suggestion would instead be to move a little North and instead read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s trilogy “Nervous Conditions”, “The Book of Not” and “This Mournable Body”.

My thanks to Vintage Chatto and Windus, Random House UK, for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
687 reviews3,400 followers
November 3, 2021
Damon Galgut's brilliant 2014 novel “Arctic Summer” was a fictional reimagining of the life of EM Forster which describes his experiences after the publication of his novel “Howard's End”. Forster's classic book about who will inherit a house serves as the structure for Galgut's new novel “The Promise”, but it's set in South Africa in the years immediately before and after Apartheid. It follows the experiences of a relatively-privileged white family who own a small farm and their fates over time. An annexe to their property is inhabited by Salome, a black maid who has worked for the family for many years and the novel begins with matriarch Rachel on her deathbed requesting that the deed to this property be given this woman who has served her so faithfully. Although her husband Manie promises to fulfil her wish, the transfer of ownership to Salome is delayed year after year after year. The self-consumed and selfish family members are so concerned with their own dramas that fulfilling this bequest always seems tediously inconvenient or perhaps it's a power they are unwilling to relinquish. But youngest daughter Amor witnessed the promise being made and persistently reminds her family it should be honoured (much to their exasperation.) Just as Forster's novel symbolically asked who will inherit England, Galgut's story asks who will inherit South Africa but I think his query is much more complicated than that simple concept sounds.

The striking thing about how this novel is written is its impressively fluid style which artfully weaves in and out of certain perspectives, briskly navigates through different scenes and frequently switches point of view. At first this felt almost disorientating to me as transitions in focus are made so rapidly it sometimes requires careful attention to follow the narrative, but it soon became mesmerising as I felt caught in the flow of time and Galgut's gorgeously poetic language. However, the apparent freedom of this narrative to roam wherever it wishes (even into the perspective of the dead) is deceptive. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that in following the fates of different members of the Swart family we're also tragically locked into the white gaze from which they cannot escape. Their prejudiced views saturate the sensibility of this novel. Their assumed superiority and odious casual racism appears with wincing regularity. For example, a typical paranoid statement made about black servants is that “You have to get rid of them before they start to scheme.” If these racist attitudes come to feel exasperating and if the reader longs to instead get Salome's perspective I think that's fully intentional. It's something the Swart family with their myopic view of the world never considers and so the reader is similarly denied access except for brief glimpses such as the family's black driver Lexington who observes with exasperation: “It is not always possible to please two white people simultaneously.” As such, we come to understand the real crisis in a country where legalized segregation may have ended but the tragic divide between two groups of people remains.

Read my full review of The Promise by Damon Galgut on LonesomeReader

I've also made a video discussing my thoughts on the novel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3MRnH2g5Y4
Profile Image for David.
296 reviews762 followers
November 4, 2021
The Promise chronicles the demise over several decades of the Swart family, white South Africans who are descendants of the Voortrekkers. The youngest daughter, Amor, witnesses her father’s promise to bequeath a small homestead to the Black family who lives on the Swarts’ land. The promise goes unfulfilled for decades and by the end it is worthless. Although this is a book almost entirely voiced by white characters, the final scenes reveal the narrowness of their view. Lukas’s powerful words at the end correctly reframe the narrative to show the lie on which the promise is made in the first place.
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,556 followers
March 4, 2022
Winner Booker Prize 2022.

I've been hoping to find some time to write a proper review for this beautiful book but it seem that it will not be happening in the next few weeks so I will write a few words for now. I hope to return this later. The novel presents the story of the disintegration of an old white South African family in an unique way. Each chapter is set around a funeral of one member of the family. The POV jumps from one character to another. There is a big gap between the funerals, around 10 years each time and we are witnesses not only to the changes in the family's dynamic but also to the important changes happening in the country. The novel starts during the Apartheid and it ends after Zuma's fall.

Loved the writer and the South African narrator, Peter Noble, did a wonderful job.

The audiobook included an interview with the author which can be found at Vintage Podcast just before the Booker winner was announced. The interview explains most of his creative choices and it was an eye opener in many aspects. To be listened to after the book is read.

Profile Image for Candi.
623 reviews4,719 followers
February 23, 2023
This novel was a first-rate reading experience. Damon Galgut accomplished several things I have come to demand as a picky reader. First of all, it’s skillfully written. Any book that’s going to achieve five star status absolutely has to meet this requirement! Beyond that, there’s a compelling plot, rather epic though not dragged out. The author manages to effectively do this with some decent leaps in time, without missing his mark when landing in the next decade or so. Then there’s the excellent characterization. There is no danger of mixing up one character with another; each one stands vivid in my mind well after finishing. The majority of them are not entirely likeable. In fact, they are often selfish and sometimes cruel. No matter – I relished reading about each and every one of them! Last but not least – perhaps the cherry on top – was the funny, often mocking, omniscient narrator. This can make or break a book for me. Here, the narrator’s voice absolutely won me over. He (or she?!) addresses anything and everything, but most frequently, the reader.

“A curious scene, this low-key festivity just a day after Ma has died, but on the other hand people have to eat, life goes on. They’ll be drinking and making bawdy jokes soon after you go too.”

The novel opens with the death of Ma, mother of Anton, Astrid and Amor, and wife to Manie Swart. The Swarts have been summoned back to the homestead in South Africa. Just prior to this event, Amor, the youngest, overheard a conversation between Ma and Pa. A promise was made between a husband and a wife. Salome, the Black woman who has served as housekeeper and caregiver to the family for years, lives in a small house on a piece of land owned by the family. Manie promises he will fulfill Ma’s wish to give the house to Salome. This promise will be the thread that weaves its way throughout the entirety of the novel. Galgut goes further with this. He manages to liken this personal promise to the politics of a nation in turmoil. Quite remarkably, he does this without ever getting heavy handed. Family members range from being entirely against fulfilling this promise (and for that matter, when the book begins, it’s not even a legal possibility), to being rather wishy-washy about it, to seemingly supporting it wholeheartedly. Isn’t it often the case when we uphold (with what we believe to be earnest support) an idea yet still fail to follow through? Are good intentions enough? Perhaps they just make us feel more comfortable about ourselves.

“The question of the Lombard place and her mother’s last wish and her father’s promise, really several questions although they feel like only one, has followed her around the world, bothering her at particular moments like a stranger importuning her in the street, plucking at her sleeve, crying out. Attend to me! And she knows that she must, one day she will have to answer, but why should one day be today?”

This reminded me of a quote by Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.” I’m sure our narrator would appreciate the sarcasm in that one. The house and the piece of land in question aren’t even all that noteworthy. In fact, Galgut never depicts the landscape in a sentimental fashion, even through his characters. Rather than beauty, one imagines something stark, desolate, and often threatening. Yet it belongs to the Swarts! No one can take that away from them, no matter how fruitless the plot of land really is.

“Useless ground, full of stones, you can do nothing with it. But it belongs to our family, nobody else, and there’s power in that.”

The ending really tied it all together for me – I found it to be brilliant! Regardless of our power, our status, our color, our gender or any of that nonsense which we think sets “us” apart from the “other”, we are really all on the same plane, aren’t we? Nature and the universe do not distinguish us in this way. What makes us so extraordinary that we should set ourselves above another? I can still hear that subtle, refined snicker of Galgut’s narrator in my ear. Oh, and did I say this was dark? Yeah, it is. I loved it.

“But in the meantime there is the body, the horrible meaty fact of it, the thing that reminds everyone… that one day they shall lie there too… emptied out of everything, merely a form, unable even to look at itself. And the mind recoils from its absence, cannot think of itself not thinking, the coldest of voids.”
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,468 reviews3,635 followers
November 7, 2021
The Promise is hard and dark and in Damon Galgut there is no trace of sentimentality.
Death in the family… Funeral rites… The last journey…
And as they drive away, Rachel’s body is already being lifted into its final container and the lid screwed down. For ever. The shomer is in attendance and when the other assistants have gone he continues to sit in his lonely chair against the wall, chanting the tehillim. For the dead must have company all the way to the end.

The dead depart and the living are left behind… The living with their sympathies and enmities… Their loves and hates… Their expectations and troubles… Their needs and pleasures…
The need to fuck like bonobos is uppermost these days and he certainly came here today for no noble reason. Only one thing on my mind since hearing about Ma, funny that, just how it works, Eros fighting Thanatos, except you don’t think about sex, you suffer it. A scratchy, hungry thing going on in the basement. Torment of the damned, the fire that never goes out. But still, despite bodily appetites, he feels that he’s chasing some emotion he can’t quite name. Might even be love, though that would surprise him.

Water keeps passing under the bridge, the world changes but the deaths in the family always repeat.
And the living forget their promises given to the dead.
Profile Image for Pakinam Mahmoud.
813 reviews3,501 followers
July 26, 2023
الوعد..الرواية الفائزة بجائزة البوكر العالمية لهذا العام للكاتب الجنوب أفريقي دامون جالجوت...
رُشح الكاتب مرتين للبوكر قبل كدة عام ٢٠٠٣ و ٢٠١٠و طبعاً البوكر اللي بنتكلم عنها هنا هي البوكر الأصلية مش البوكر بتاعتنا اللي علي قدها حبتين:)

تدور أحداث الرواية حول عائلة بيضاء غنية مكونة من أب وأم وثلاث أطفال ،يعيشوا في مزرعة في جنوب أفريقيا و تعمل لديهم خادمة أعطتها الأم وعداً بإمتلاك جزء من الأرض و المنزل التي تعيش فيه وهو وعد لم يتم الوفاء به لأكثر من ٤٠ سنة..

٤٠ سنة سيتعرض فيها أفراد هذه العائلة لحالتي وفاة ،جريمة قتل وحادثة إنتحار و برغم كل هذه الظروف تظل الخادمة تعمل لديهم في صمت وعلي أمل إن يوماً ما سيأتي من يوفي بوعده لها...
الكاتب من خلال الأحداث ألقي الضوء علي المشاكل و التغيرات اللي حصلت في البلد خلال هذه الفترة و تحولها من بلد عنصرية إلي بلد ديمقراطية وكيف بدأ المجتمع يتقبل أصحاب البشرة السمراء الذي أصبح لديهم نفوذ و سلطة لم تكن موجودة من قبل..

إسلوب الكاتب صعب الصراحة وبتلاقي نفسك في نفس الفقرة فجأة بتنتقل من شخصية للتانية أو حتي من مكان للتاني بدون مقدمات و الإسلوب دة بيفكرني شوية بطريقة كتابة يوسا في رواياته ..بتبقي متجنن وإنت بتقرأ بس مستمتع في نفس الوقت:)
كما إن الحوارات سواء كانت حوارات داخلية للشخص مع نفسه أو حوارات مع أشخاص أخرين حتلاقيها كلها زي ما بنقول كدة سايحة علي بعضها و محتاجة منك تركيز جامد و الطريقة دي كمان بتفكرني شوية بإسلوب ساراماغو..

الكتاب طبعاً مش مترجم ومتوفر بالإنجليزية بصيغة كيندل وبي دي أف...و لازم أعترف إنه كان صعب جداً في أجزاء كتير في قراءته مش بس بسبب إسلوب الكاتب المربك أحياناً لكن أيضاً بسبب إستخدامه لمفردات وكلمات باللغة الإنجليزية مكانتش سهلة بالنسبة لي في فهمها لدرجة إني كنت حاسة إني مش حقدر أكمله..

في النهاية قدرت أكمله و مبسوطة جداً إني خلصته وبحس إن لازم من وقت للتاني نقرأ لكتاب مختلفين بلغة مختلفة عن بتاعتنا ونخرج برة
our comfort zone in reading..
والكتاب هنا كان تجربة مميزة جداً ..قصة آسرة..إسلوب كتابة مذهل..كاتب مختلف و عبقري..

في هذا النوع من الروايات مينفعش نسأل السؤال بتاع هل كانت تستاهل البوكر ولا لأ...
هو ممكن نسأل سؤال تاني وحيكون واقعي أكتر..
هو البوكر اللي عندنا دة ممكن يجي يوم و نلاقي فيها روايات بهذا المستوي؟
أعتقد الإجابة -إلي حد كبير-معروفة ؛)
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
November 3, 2021
Deserved 2021 Booker prize winner 🎉

In a snarky style the omniscient narrator jumps between the members of a white Afrikaans family, ironically called Swart (black in old Dutch), that’s just lost a member in 1986. We see them and their country change, often not for the better, through three more funerals in this surprisingly funny book
Life, life happened.
Yes, I can see that.

I loved the unflinching way Damon Galgut dissects the pettiness of many of the characters, without turning them into caricatures.
Salome, the black housekeeper, is centre of a conflict about inheritance and the subject of the titular promise. She is basically an absence in The Promise: Not much shows in her face, she wears her life like a mask, like a graven image.
The Swart children, Anton, Astrid and Amor are at the centre of the book and we get to know them through four funerals. The writing is very filmic, pans out and zooms in frequently while jumping around characters their thoughts. The approach of a person is for instance captured thus and for me is instantly visualisable:
A human figure approaching, filling itself in slowly, putting on age and sex and race, like items of clothing

Amor is the boarding school child coming home and is kind of an enigma, despite being on the surface the most kind of the children. She survived a lighting strike but for the rest leaves little marks initially: When the girl herself is absent, the room is like a blank page, almost no marks or clues to say anything about her, which perhaps does say something about her.

Astrid meanwhile is more world savvy and already into relationships: Terrible to flinch from what you once, briefly, loved, or thought you did, or wanted to think you did.

Rachel herself, the mother whose funeral is forms the heart of the first chapter, stubborn and turned Jewish during her illness, also becomes a narrator.
Like a camera just shifting its focus every time the omniscient way of storytelling by Galgut guides us into the South Africa the characters inhibit, while not shunning musings on the supernatural:
How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.
Also we have psychic homeless man just popping up at one funeral to further this touch later on.

Meanwhile we are only granted perfunctory glances into the lives of the black characters, maybe reflective of the way they are even treated and have limited agency in even the new South Africa:
It is not always possible to please two white people simultaneously.

Anton is a character in the first part, I was routing for him (but also found him a massive overconfident teenager) but then in part two Galgut daringly changes things up and he is so changed, almost broken. Amor meanwhile stays the same aloof person:
She has learned, or perhaps has always known, that if you want to move forward it’s best not to look back.
Astrid is meanwhile contemplating her lost youth, housewife life and shows hints of anorexia, while turning into a rather obnoxious person:
Whatever is hated is also feared, some consolation in that.

People change through time, or become more themselves, as does the world around them which more and more shows it stays the same despite the changes at the surface:
You understand, he says, people don’t always take what you give them. Not every chance is an opportunity. Sometimes a chance is just a waste of time.

Amor working in the HIV ward and living with a woman turns out to have quite an ascetic life, while Astrid and Anton go full on capitalistic (and spoiler alert: don't find happiness in this road):
She is always at her least unhappy in a shopping mall. or
The natural order, as far as she’s concerned, is that the world is there to try and please her, and she is there to feel disappointed by it.

There is much to uncover and quite some unpleasant to downright gruesome things happen. Still this is a book suffused by humor, although a black kind. The priest shitting for instance is hilarious and Moti the yoga teacher doing a speech at a funeral for someone he dislikes also absolutely made me chuckle. There is a sardonic humour but no one is spared by life, even saint like Amor is admonished near the end in a way that is chilling and gives an answer to the following thought of a character:
Or is bad karma reserved only for other people?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Promise, it being my favourite of the shortlisted books for the 2021 Booker prize (with A Passage North a close second) and it is the deserved winner of this year.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,196 reviews1,819 followers
December 3, 2021

È una voce narrante instancabile, incessante, che non conosce pause. Epperò mai invadente, mai eccessiva, piuttosto, suadente.
Racconta una storia che è una saga di famiglie e genti e razze e popoli, e la racconta in terza persona: ma ogni tanto si rivolge a qualche personaggio in modo diretto, e quindi col tu; oppure, viene avanti, parla tra sé, e quindi la voce diventa un io.
La sensazione del piano sequenza nasce quasi subito e fino alla fine non abbandona: un piano sequenza lungo duecentosettanta pagine.
Ma, la punteggiatura c’è tutta, così pure gli accapo, gli spazi vuoti, i capitoli. Eppure, la voce narrante non si ferma, abbraccia tutto, uno, o una, alla volta, ma mai da solo (sola), sempre sotto il riflettore e sempre circondato da altri, tanti. Una storia dietro l’altra, una vita che diventa l’altra. Quasi con ingordigia, mai sazia, racconta e racconta. Inanella. Capace di stupore: di provarlo, e generarlo.

Galgut abbraccia tre o quattro decenni nei suoi quattro capitoli, ognuno intestato a un personaggio che viene seppellito: si comincia subito con la madre - che prima dell’interramento ha anche qualche passaggio di particolare bellezza in veste di fantasma, ma viva invece non la vediamo affatto - poi il padre, poi…
E intanto la storia con la esse maiuscola resta sullo sfondo, ma con le sue ramificazioni sale anche sul palcoscenico degli attori protagonisti. Si va da Botha a Mandela, colui che passò “da una cella a un trono” e quando il figlio maggiore, l’unico maschio, arriva al capezzale del padre in terapia intensiva vede che nel letto accanto c’è un paziente di colore, e il narratore riflette - ma forse è lo stesso Anton a farlo - che:
L’apartheid è finito, ecco, adesso moriamo l’uno accanto all’altro, in stretta vicinanza. È solo la parte del vivere che dobbiamo ancora risolvere.
Nel terzo capitolo è la volta di Mbeki. Nel quarto, ovviamente, di Zuma.

Alcune spettacolari immagini di temporali nel veld sudafricano.

La storia del Sudafrica attraverso quella della famiglia Swart. E viceversa. E chi apre e chiude la narrazione, la sopravvissuta, la cucciola di casa, è l’unica che sa adattarsi alla trasformazione sociale, e accettarla, anzi, quasi stimolarla con la sua apertura (affetto? Riconoscenza?) per la vecchia tata di colore.
Fare epica con il quotidiano: non so se fosse questo l’intento di Galgut, ma questo è comunque quanto ha raggiunto e ottenuto con questo suo magnifico romanzo vincitore del Booker Prize 2021 (dopo essere stato finalista già altre due volte!).

Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,589 followers
March 7, 2022
One of the most powerful Booker winners I’ve ever read

Damon Galgut’s absorbing novel about the decline and fall of a white South African family is a literary masterpiece. It’s both a tragicomic family portrait and an allegory about the inhumane treatment of Blacks during and after apartheid.

The Swarts are an ordinary white family living on a smallholding outside Pretoria in 1986. The title refers to a promise Afrikaner Manie made to his Jewish wife Rachel (overheard by their younger daughter, Amor) that the Black family maid, Salome, would inherit the tiny house she currently lives in. When Rachel dies, Amor reminds her father of this promise, but he doesn’t remember it and shoos her away.

The four chapters are spaced about a decade apart, and each one is named after a character who dies. During each section, the subject of Salome’s inheritance is ignored or passed on or put off. Meanwhile, characters meet their grim reapers, sometimes in a violent fashion. Is this biblical justice for an unfulfilled promise? Karma?

Apart from its satisfying structure and the efficient way Galgut incorporates the passing of time and the changing political landscape, the novel’s most memorable feature is its tone and narrative point of view. Galgut employs a third-person omniscient narrator who flits from character to character, sometimes even giving us the point of view of a bird or insect or…. corpse. The narrator can also be terribly droll, chastising us for our assumptions along the way.

At first I thought this technique – Galgut’s style has drawn deserving comparisons to both Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner – would wear thin after a while. But it’s generous and expansive in its look at humanity, with all its vanities and faults (and its occasional virtues) on display.

An unforgettable novel.
Profile Image for But_i_thought_.
185 reviews1,536 followers
November 3, 2021
Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize

The reader. The reader lives in Johannesburg — has been living in Johannesburg since 1995 — and is nervous about picking up a book that grapple’s with South Africa’s past. Is it an account of South African history written mainly for the edification of the Western gaze? Does it say anything new or surprising about the legacy of apartheid to South Africans living in the present day?

Now travel 1,400km South from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and behold the author, Damon Galgut. Twice shortlisted for the Booker prize. Recent work on a film script has unleashed new creative forces within him and he approaches his latest material with the freedom and playfulness of a screenplay — his camera pans from character to character, zooms in on certain individuals, lingers for a while, and then zooms out, giving us the perspectives of different generations, circumstances, even animal consciousness.

Now zoom out and behold South Africa as a whole, across four chapters, four decades and four seasons:

Spring of 1986
Winter of 1995
Autumn of 2004
Summer of 2018

A South African seasonal quartet, if you will, narrating seminal events in South African history (from the fall of apartheid, to the jubilation following the 1995 Rugby World Cup, to the HIV/AIDS crisis under the reign of Thabo Mebki, to the resignation of Jacob Zuma). Promise (spring) followed by Defeat (winter), then Return (autumn) and Ripening (summer) — each season reflecting a different tonal palette in South Africa’s past.

Now look at the Swart family, the Afrikaans farm-holding family at the center of this novel, through which we observe the decades above: Ma, Pa and three children (Astrid, Anton and Amor). Each chapter concerns itself with a family funeral, examining the changes (political and personal) the intervening years have wrought.

Do you hear that? Thump, thump goes the heartbeat of the reader, as she works her way through the story. As more and more members of the Swart family perish, the plot becomes increasingly dramatic — the reading experience more tense and more engrossing than the reader had ultimately expected.

Now turn your attention, for a moment, to the matters making headlines in present day South Africa. Notice the repetition of a certain phrase, like the beating of a drum – LAND EXPROPRIATION WITHOUT COMPENSATION. The Constitution has recently been amended to accelerate land reform – the seizure of land from private owners to place it in the hands of underprivileged communities with a historical claim on that land. Notice the fable at the heart of the Promise and how it addresses this particular challenge. Notice also how the voices of the Swart family children represent different (white) perspectives on the matter, from vehement opposition (Astrid), to acquiescence but inaction (Anton), to reparation and reframing (Amor).

Now look at yourself in that mirror over there. No, really look at yourself. You may be living in the UK or the US, or perhaps the Antipodes. When it comes to the issue of sharing your own inherited resources with those historically disadvantaged, are you more Astrid or more Amor? Or perhaps you are Anton? Is it even yours to share in the first place? That, my friends, is the question.

Mood: Filmic
Rating: 8/10

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More details on chapter timelines:

Chapter 1: Spring of 1986 (clues: “the jacarandas are all in bloom” and “jacaranda blossoms pop absurdly underfoot”)

Chapter 2: Winter of 1995 (clues: “yesterday was a public holiday, Youth Day”, which is 16 June, plus description of Rugby World Cup final, which took place on 24 June 1995)

Chapter 3: Autumn of 2004 (clues: mention of Thabo Mbeki’s second inauguration which took place on 27 April 2004, plus descriptions of “brown grass verges and jacarandas losing their leaves”)

Chapter 4: Summer of late 2017 / early 2018 (clues: “It’s a public holiday, Reconciliation Day” which takes place on December 16th, up to the resignation of Jacob Zuma which took place on 14 February 2018)
Profile Image for Colin Baldwin.
Author 1 book244 followers
January 16, 2023
Just 4 stars. I know, I know… how does a Booker Prize winner rate less than 5?
I grappled a little with this review.
It’s my first Damon Galgut novel and I certainly can appreciate what he has achieved in weaving a story of family dysfunction set against the backdrop on South Africa’s modern political and social history. Was the symbolism intentional or something I searched for in the text?
My gripes:
Did I detect mixed tenses? If so, hats off. It takes a skilful, confident writer to pull this off.
Had I not read two books back-to-back that both adopted the style of no quotation marks, I would not have raised this as a ‘gripe’, but I must confess I sought out my next book that had the ‘old-fashion’ style. A trivial point, but it can’t ignore it contributed to lower rating.
The main ensemble of white characters is unappealing, but real. The black characters delegated to the fringes of the prose - the racism necessary for authenticity, but jarring.
Now I’ve got that all off my chest, there are some plusses:
I felt as though Galgut often took the reader on a journey that felt like a uninterrupted screen shot, moving through rooms, through countrysides, generations, events and spaces in times.
There is some excellent writing, for example, ‘You come back from a long vanishment and the surface closes as if you were never gone. Family quicksand.’ CB
Profile Image for Jaidee.
607 reviews1,205 followers
July 22, 2023
4 "sweeping, omniscient, tongue in cheek" stars !!

First of all, a warm thank you to Candi whose review led me to move this from my long list to my short list. Otherwise this book might have never been read. Many of you know what that is like.

Also appreciative to Rakhi D, Helga, Colin, Violeta and David whose reviews and high ratings propelled me further.

In 2017, I read this author's exquisite In a Strange Room and that book became my Silver Award winner of 2017 and continues to be one of my most treasured reads. I still shiver inwardly when I reflect on that one.

This won the Booker Prize of 2021 as well as several other prizes. I can appreciate why this book won so many accolades despite this not being a five star read for me.

This novel takes place over 30 to 35 years in South Africa through the lives and eyes of a semi-rural upper middle class white family in four interludes around the deaths of family members. The writing is sweeping, pristine, often funny and mostly insightful. An omniscient eye is able to go inside each of the characters and point out virtues, foibles and hypocrisies. In the background we have the end of apartheid and the formation of a new South Africa with different issues and problems. A promise is made to a black housekeeper and this is both the glue that holds the novel together as well as serving as a constant reminder of oppression, colonialism and white savior realities. There is a tongue in cheekness to the writing that although effective left this reader less engaged and created distance where I had wanted more resonance and emotional impact.

This is an excellently written and impactful novel that did not reach to my heart and soul core the way
In a Strange Room did. I very much look forward to reading more by Mr. Galgut.

Profile Image for Meike.
1,593 reviews2,825 followers
November 4, 2021
Now, as predicted, winner of the Booker Prize 2021
Damon Galgut tells the story of an affluent white family who owns a farm near Pretoria, and then loses everything. The title refers to the promise the father made to the dying mother: Their Black maid Salome should become the owner of the house in which she and her family have lived (yes, please note the reference to King Salomon and thus the question of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa). But for various reasons, the promise isn't kept for a very long time...the issue arises again and again over the years, causing arguments between the father and his children, Anton, Astrid, and Amor.

The book opens in 1986, when Anton is a soldier for the pro-Apartheid government, Astrid a teenager and Amor 13 years old. The whole story is divided in four parts, the second one set in 1995 (if my calculations are correct), the third in 2004 and the last one in 2018. Each part involves one character dying and the ones left behind grappling with the situation and pondering the persona and roles of the deceased. In this dysfunctional family, everyone is looking for salvation, but they attempt very different methods. While the characters struggle, the political landscape around them is changing rapidly, and one can't claim that they are on the progressive side of things - mostly, they remain apathetic, with Amor deliberately seeking out confrontation with personal pain.

The Black characters remain obscure, their thoughts, traits and interests play (almost) no role in the text - and this is deliberate. The white characters remain caught up in the white gaze, mainly talking about Black people, looking at them without wanting to see. Rather, they project their own feelings and ideas onto them, thus trying to deal with their own guilt and personal decisions. They are trying to craft a narrative (one even attempting his hand as a memoirist), but this narrative keeps falling apart, suffocating and making no sense because it is closed off from the country at large.

The star of the novel is its narrative voice that oscillates between perspectives as well as the first, second and third person singular, sometimes breaking the fourth wall, sometimes addressing the characters, sometimes underlining the fact that this story is fictional by pointing out potential inconsistencies or pondering whether events really took place as described. Who or what is this narrator? - the question becomes more and more compelling, adding suspense to the story. It might be a wandering soul, a ghost (of history / guilt), or even a God-like figure. Religion is an important undercurrent in every chapter, as the characters turn to different faiths or spiritual beliefs, so a rabbi, a pastor, a priest, and even a new age yoga teacher play crucial roles.

This religious theme is often connected to the question of guilt, most obviously when discussing the Catholic confession and the need to repent in order to be granted absolution. In this context, it's also interesting to ponder who Amor actually is: As a six-year-old, she was struck by lightning, and has since been perceived as strange by her family. While at first described as a little slow, they later turn to her because she is easy to talk to, which also makes her a priest-like figure - for white people. Is Amor really the personification of love? No spoilers, but Galgut did definitely not write an undercomplex text.

All in all, this is a smart, captivating text, crafted in an unusal narrative voice. The Booker judges sure made some good calls this year. This is my winner.
Profile Image for Violeta.
87 reviews77 followers
April 28, 2022
I don’t know if this book rightfully won the 2021 Booker Prize since I haven’t read any of the other five that made the shortlist; I understand why it made the list in the first place though. The story ticked all the ‘right’ thematic boxes of our times:
Injustice, check. Disillusionment, check. Decline, check. Trauma, check. Life & Death, check & check. All of the above apply to both the social and personal aspects of the novel.

The social frame is South Africa in the four decades following the fall of Apartheid. Against this background the story of the Swarts, a white family of considerable wealth, unfolds. We follow them, stopping at intervals of roughly ten years, all the way through to the demise of all but the youngest daughter. Their conduct and attitudes, along with those of all the characters who make an even fleeting appearance, a proper circus, reflect the restlessness and discomfort of a country that just can’t let go of its past. A country the citizens of which, same as its leaders, aren’t too keen on keeping the promises they once made to even those closest to them.

Nothing new here, of course, and we are strongly reminded that there’s a price to be paid for such inconsistency. Is this a moral tale then? It could be but the author steers clear of that. He uses a third-person narrative voice that is too cynical and mocking to allow his readers the notion they are being lectured. This voice not only narrates but goes as far as to directly address, even chastise, us readers along with the characters! It is a decidedly intriguing approach and tricky to handle. It amused me for the most part but at some point I started feeling uneasy.

Damon Galgut left me with the sense that not only did he not remain impartial, he actually detested most of his characters. I can live with unlikable characters and I’ve met plenty in my reading life but I’ve never met any who were disliked by their own creator. How else to explain a certain hastiness and the many clichés he’s using when sketching them? They were all so predictable...

I can’t accept this was due to lack of depth or inventiveness on his part. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate how we all (even the most colorful among us) are just the sum of our clichéd behaviours and shortcomings. If that’s the case then he did a pretty good job but if he had gone a bit deeper he would have done a much better one.
Whatever the case, this was a remarkably readable book despite the sense of uneasiness it left me with. Nothing new here either; another cliché in a long string of ones that seem to be a fundamental part of our lives. I find it easier to accept them there than in prize-winning novels, though.
Profile Image for Barbara.
286 reviews248 followers
May 16, 2023
Amazing in some ways, this book is so masterfully written, so stark, so void of emotion. This is a book I am glad I read but never enjoyed picking up. It felt like willingly pulling a black cloud over my head, a cloud full of cold biting rain. Yet, it was mentally compelling. Camus could have easily written this story of the meaninglessness of life and death. "Her brother leaves the next morning, or is it the morning after that." Fair warning of an existentialist nature. The Promise is not the typical family saga nor the typical family - a book judges love but not so all readers.

Each section is named for a Swart family member who has recently died ( five members, four funerals). The setting is the mid 1980's beginning with the the State of Emergency and the inception of the dissolution of Apartheid. This family, held together by wealth, is also falling apart; a dysfunctional government, a dysfunctional family. Beginning with the death of Rachel, the mother, this family convenes for the first funeral. I would have liked to know more about Rachel as she seemed like she had escaped the depravity of all but one of the other family members. On her deathbed she asked that a promise be realized. This last breath wish is what drives the novel and gives it the title.This promise and the lack of concern for what it means is of little concern to these totally self-absorbed individuals. One daughter, struck by lightning as a child, maybe struck by decency as well, does care and desires the promise to be carried through, but her remoteness makes it difficult to bring it to fruition. The only son, once having so much potential, so much promise, even emotional promise, fails on many fronts. But his feelings of guilt and awareness of his shortcomings raise him above his despicable relatives, in my mind anyway.

What redeemed this book for me was the quality of the writing and the ending. It certainly wasn't an "everyone lived happily ever after" ending ( only one member was still living). But it left me feeling that justice and compassion can prevail; a promise made has value and is worth fighting for, albeit slowly and quietly.
Profile Image for Beata.
756 reviews1,158 followers
December 27, 2021
I was surprised by how much the story of a promise not kept engrossed me ... A most moving and sad tale set against several decades of changes in the Republic of South Africa.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,735 followers
July 27, 2021
Now longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

It isn't much, she says. I know that. Three rooms and a broken roof. On a tough piece of land. Yes. But for the first time, it'll belong to your mother. Her name on the title deed. Not my family's. That isn't nothing.
Yes, Salome agrees, speaking Setswana. It isn't nothing.
It is nothing, Lukas says. Smiling again, in that cold, furious way. It's what you don't need any more, it's what you don't mind throwing away. Your leftovers. That's what you're giving my mother, thirty years too late. As good as nothing.

After a strong start, I struggled with this book both in terms of the material of the story and the style. It's always a hard ask to try to encapsulate the deeply problematic history of a country, here South Africa, via a single family which is what is being done here: the white, Afrikaner Swart family and their long-term relationship with their Black servant, Salome.

Inevitably, the story dips in and out and across time, the first two sections built around two funerals ten years apart. There are what initially look like generational differences as the children of the family appear to have a different relationship to Salome, her son Lukas, and to the eponymous, and failed, promise to give her a home of her own - but, by the end, as indicated in the quotation above, there are questions about Amor's well-intentioned but freighted act of patronage.

In between all the good stuff, though, is just lots of filler and it's not always easy to navigate through the story. The narrative stance is a kind of personalised omniscience that moves around, sometimes observing the scene, sometimes told from within the head or consciousness of the characters. Again, I found it hard, at times, to know whose judgement or point of view was being articulated. In an early scene, for example, the narrative voice describes 'the set of three [stamps] commemorating Dr Verwoerd, issued a few months after the great man's murder' - and it's not clear whether it's the character who deems the architect of apartheid 'a great man' or whether this is the omniscient narrative voice speaking with irony, or even both. At another point, the narrative voice states, 'she dislikes her whole body, as many of you do' - again, who's that 'you'? Us as readers? White South Africans? Adolescent girls, as this is related to Amor who is about to experience her first period? It made the book feel baggy to me and I wanted more precision and tautness.

The only other thing I'd say is that it's hard to say something new when reviewing South African history in these sweeping terms, especially, for me, when Nadine Gordimer has made the topic so much her own. If this book had spent more time on the current issues in post-apartheid South Africa it might have carved out more targeted and particular space for itself. The combination of fuzzy writing style and returning to a sweeping history done before didn't really work for me.

Thanks to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
202 reviews159 followers
November 3, 2021
Winner of the Booker Prize 2021

Of the five Booker shortlisted novels I've read thus far, this one is indisputably at the top of my list.

First, this is a stunning technical achievement in high-modernist narrative voice, as Galgut's omniscient narrator abruptly darts from one character's consciousness to another, up- and down-shifting from the third to second to first person. The narrative voice has a dreamlike power, but these reveries are interrupted by sardonic judgments and absurdist irony.

This wandering soul has access to what these major protagonists and minor characters (even the occasional animal) consciously think, perceive, and feel, but also articulates repressed thoughts and desires that they can't articulate themselves. But the narrator him/herself is entirely self-aware that s/he's actively engaged in the act of narration from a willful distance, deliberately selecting details and shaping them into a fugue that braids these contrapuntal voices into a deep, rich, tragic novel of generational trauma.

Galgut interrogates the white gaze from within, tracing the story of the Swart family between the 1980s and the near-present, exploring how the moral legacy of apartheid has warped and stunted the inner lives of Afrikaners into myopic complacency. We only see Black characters as the Swarts and their extended family members observe them and act upon them. Each of the novel's four sections centers around the funeral of a family member, until only one remains. This sounds schematic and meticulously-planned, but it's anything but, because the force of the narrative voice is so propulsive.

While hyper-realistically embedded in the grit of everyday life, the story is a parable of a nation, and the family farm is the country writ small. The promise of the title is a broken one, involving an unresolved land claim that symbolizes the larger historical forces of dispossession. While dying of cancer, the mother, Rachel, has promised a small house on the property to Salome, the family's longtime Black servant who nursed her. But the stubborn father, Manie, refuses to grant this promise, and their dissolute son Anton (the author of a failed novel whose structure mirrors that of this novel) can never quite bring himself to honor it, either.

Only Amor, the younger daughter, has any intention of honoring this promise, but renouncing her patrimony is a belated and isolated act of white saviorism that Salome's son Lukas doesn't respond to with the expected degree of gratitude. Through their reactions to the ambient political environment, we learn that the collective guilt of the Swart family is on some level irredeemable, and that these historical wounds are especially resistant to healing. Galgut is anything but didactic and manipulative, leaving his readers to learn these lessons on their own as we sift through the personal wreckage of a political history of systemic dispossession and marginalization.
Profile Image for Dwayne.
120 reviews127 followers
March 20, 2023
Now the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize

Earlier this year, I made the case in support of book awards saying that had it not been for the Booker, I probably would not have heard of Bernardine Evaristo or Girl, Woman, Other. Yes, I was late in reading that book, but I absolutely loved it. I haven't read last year's winner yet, (late again) but now with Booker season almost at its end, I can boast that I've been much more invested this time around. Damon Galgut is now another author the Booker prize has introduced me to and along with him, his masterful book, The Promise.

It's apartheid-era South Africa, and under law, Black people are not allowed to own property in white areas. Before Rachel dies (she's the matriarch of the Swart household), she makes her husband Manie promise that Salome (the Swarts’ domestic servant) will receive full ownership of the house where Salome lives with her family. The promise, of course, is buried with Rachel only to be unearthed by Amor (the youngest of the Swart family) in subsequent years. At 13, Amor overheard the conversation where her father promises her mother that the house will go to Salome. Each section of the novel is dedicated to the death of another family member, basically showing us what that promise means to each of them. As such, these sections are rather lengthy. I did not mind.

Galgut's writing is unusual. With a somewhat non-linear plot, the narrative voice flows through consciousness, moving from character to character, (much like a film camera) sometimes alighting on characters completely unrelated to the story at hand- a homeless man outside of a church, a pack of jackals, even a ghost. An omniscient narrator, if you will. The effect is dizzying. Still, every page is controlled by Galgut; there isn't a word out of place. This is a writer who knows exactly what they are doing, and I was more than impressed. It's a book of scope and ambition, one more than deserving of its place on the Booker shortlist and, of course, its win.

With that being said, it won't be a book that everyone will like or even appreciate, and that's quite fine. I'm not too familiar with South African writers or books on apartheid, (I've yet to read Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist even though I've had a copy for over 10 years) so I'm certainly not the best person to judge this book within the context of a much wider canon. I will say, though, the rave reviews are justified. This is a book that deserves to be praised, and more importantly, widely read.
Profile Image for Aoife Cassidy McM.
568 reviews178 followers
November 6, 2021
Winner of the Booker Prize 2021 but for me, a tedious, joyless read with a sizeable dollop of sexism, some beautiful prose but stylistically a turnoff.

The Promise is centred around exactly that - a promise which Amor, the youngest of the three Swart children (Astrid and Anton are the others) overhears her father Manie make before her mother Rachel dies.

The promise is that Manie will ensure that the family’s Black maid Salome is gifted the house she lives in on their land. Manie fails to fulfil the promise and it rears its head in every chapter until the final conclusion.

The book is likely intended as a parable for a failed South Africa, and each chapter is pegged to a period in South African history, from apartheid in 1986 to Zuma’s resignation in 2018. I didn’t think it worked particularly well - the cultural and political goings on were tacked on rather than subtly woven into the story.

The book has four long (very long) chapters, each detailing the death and aftermath of a member of the Swart family. The writing is descriptive and very lovely at times and I was able to enjoy it in parts.

The narration of the book is where it died a death for me - an omniscient narrator tells the story, switching from third person, to first person, and even on occasion to second person where he oddly addresses the reader. I hated this stylistic approach, it’s jarring and the tone is very condescending at times particularly when it came to passages about the female characters, which leads me nicely to the element of the book I disliked the most.

Women were variously described as “globular”, having “meaningful calves”, “large breasts”, “never got her body back after the pregnancy”, “a platinum ice lolly”, “a bunch of hookers”. At Amor’s breakthrough moment in the first chapter, she gets her first period at her mother’s funeral, in what feels like a tired trope. Astrid is bulimic and is filled with self-loathing. I could go on. Women described purely in terms of their sexual attractiveness (or perceived lack thereof) is such a turnoff.

Finally and not that it matters particularly, but the cover is such an odd choice that doesn’t really work with the story.

I’ll just stop now. This wasn’t for me. No doubt others have loved it and will love it. 2/5⭐️
Profile Image for Doug.
2,047 reviews746 followers
December 1, 2022
Booker Prize Winner 2021

# 8 in this year's Booker Marathon for me, and currently at the top spot in my rankings, narrowly beating out my previous favorite, China Room. I think I cottoned to both due to the strong plots and interesting, clearly delineated characters, which always takes precedent for me over innovation, experimentation, or lyrical prose - although both these I thought were particularly good in that last respect.

Divided into four more or less equal length chapters, each of which is named after (spoiler alert!!) the character who dies within it, it's basically a family saga about the South African Swarts, encompassing the years 1986 -2018, when the country itself was going through some historic upheavals, which correlate with the ups and downs in the fortunes of the individual characters themselves.

Although I have read two previous novels by the now thrice-nominated Galgut (including 2010 nominee In a Strange Room), and enjoyed both, I thought this showed a gigantic leap forward for the author, and am hoping he'll at least make the shortlist ... and maybe third times the charm?
Profile Image for Pedro.
198 reviews436 followers
January 4, 2022
As much as I’d love this novel to follow the path of the previous two Booker Prize winners and become a worldwide bestseller, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Paradoxically, I believe, its strengths are bound to also become its weaknesses. For some readers, the snarky narrator is going to become a very annoying one. For those same readers and a few more, the dark undercurrent beneath the story’s surface is probably going to become too terrifying to bare. The fact that it’s so big in scope is going to raise a lot of complaints about the characterisation. And also, still in the topic of characterisation, there’s no one in particular to root for in it. All the characters are broken. And they all live in a broken (and violent) society where no one is completely safe from harm (sounds familiar?). The total lack of quotation marks and the sweeping nature of the narration, which I didn’t have any problem with, is also going to become a big cause of distress to a lot of people.

Now, and I mean at this point in time, I can’t say I know a lot about what’s going on with people or the world in general, but one thing I do know is great literature when I see it.
And this, my friends, this is great literature.
This is something that could’ve only been penned by a master storyteller. Period.

And in case you’re wondering why I am mentioning all these possible “problems”, let me tell you that I just want to make sure that it’s clear to everyone that, like everything else in my life, these five stars are a matter of love. Because when I love something or someone the way I already love this stunning work of art, nothing else is going to matter but the fact that it all became part of me from the moment it got under my skin.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,232 reviews54 followers
September 25, 2021
Very funny, Booker Prize Committee, very funny.

Let me guess . . . you were tired of trolling by conservative cultural critics who claimed that the Booker was fetishizing "diversity," so you shortlisted this book about the decline of a wealthy white family, an idea that was shopworn when Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer for "The Magnificent Ambersons" a century and change ago.

Point made, please don't prolong the joke by giving the award to this 300-page yawnathon.

I'd rather read a book about the Black servants in this book than about the Swarts, the Afrikaan clan whose dissipation Galgut documents here. I'd rather read a book about the grass the Swarts trample while running up and down the "koppie" (which I assume is a hill) behind their house than pick up "The Promise" again.

The main characters in this book are all horrible people, which I can forgive, but they're also horribly boring, which I can't. Members of the Swart family change religion as often as they do sex partners, and there's plenty of both in this book. Since the book is about four long-overdue funerals for various Swarts, this ecumenical promiscuity allows Mr. Galgut to ridicule multiple faiths, which I can respect, but in a snide unfunny way, which I can't.

Every annoying aspect of modern literature, like the abandonment of quotation marks, switching locations and verb tenses mid-sentence, and cutesy meta self-references, are abundant in "The Promise." I can forgive such indulgences from Katie Kitamura and Lauren Groff, they're experimenting with form (not to mention far superior writers), but no, Mr. Galgut doesn't get that benefit of a doubt. His eschewal of narrative conventions seems like a way to force casual readers to flip back however many pages and pay more attention than is warranted to the nasty people in this nasty book. Thanks, I didn't hate the judgmental aunt enough when I first read that paragraph, now I really despise her (and not just her).

Mr. Galgut's cynical, dismissive attitude toward his characters, even as they're being murdered and committing suicide, sure doesn't help his case, either, at least not with me. Every aside like "as has happened to you, right?" reminded me of an obnoxious teenage boy who catches your eye and smirks as you both pass a homeless person sleeping in a doorway. I'd turn away from that jerk so I don't have to hear his snotty comment, but for some reason, I finished this book. That's on me, I guess.

Oh . . . and DG? Sentences like "Why does furniture always look so innocent no matter what sins have just been committed on it" sound clever but are actually inane.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews623 followers
November 21, 2021
**^Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize***

“A modern family saga written in *gorgeous prose* by three-time Booker-Prize-shortlisted author Damon Galgut”.

“Too much has happened to pretend it doesn’t matter”.

“Rachel came to me, he tells them, six months ago, when she knew she was dying. She had been away from her own people, her own faith, for a long time. Years. And she didn’t expect to return. But life works in peculiar ways. And sometimes it’s only when you know life is ending that you can finally give it a meaning”.

“Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out”.

Lots of tragic, loss, and suffering going on in the Swart family (three children/two parents: four deaths: three decades)

The Swarts are a white family in South Africa. Their black housekeeper is a central topic of family conflicts. (a promise in question)
Man-oh-man….things get juicy-complex… a look at white privileged, sociopolitical history, ongoing upheaval in the country of South Africa, and this deeply troubled family.

Some of the religious complexities were subtly humorous.
I imagined sprinkles being added to the icing on top of the cake
while contemplating the more serious issues at large, at the same time.

Life - death - social and racial turmoil in South Africa - were prevalent throughout.

Lots of seething going on. Talk of official claims against land on the farm, a community forcibly removed long ago—to try to save a marriage or not —denial-and more denial….
….drama -hypocrisy- humiliation - rumblings-shrieking - fumbling -whisperings —muttering-competitiveness— philosophical viewpoints—
These characters keep us interested.

“There are ways of dealing with problems so that they don’t cause excessive turbulence, but it’s important to be cool and steady while also knowing exactly who to speak to”.

“He laughs with wise, percolated mirth, while he bends into a symbolic approximation of a tortoise. What is the opposite of crazy? Sanity is crazy too, isn’t it? Oh, the dualities and polarities!”

The writing is utterly seductive, and fresh…a literary feast…
Absolutely BRILLIANT!!!

Another book fully worthy of the honor and recognition it’s gotten.

I’m new to Damon Galgut…..
with a strong interest in reading every other book he has written.

Profile Image for Lisa.
432 reviews71 followers
July 3, 2022
Damon Galgut's The Promise is a layered, complex, lyrical, sublime reading experience. Can you tell I love this novel?

The eponymous promise on which this story rests can be interpreted in more than one way. Yes, there is the dying wish of Rachel that their black maid, Salome be given the poor home in which she lives and the patch of land on which it stands. There is also the promise of change for South Africa. Though the political history runs in the background, it underlies this story which spans 30 years-- from the 1986 State of Emergency under Botha to the reign of Nelson Mandela through the rule of Mbeki followed by Zuma. Galgut includes the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the HIV crisis, the rise in violent crime, and the impact of climate change all in a very understated way.

The thread of broken promise runs throughout the novel. Manie does not give Salome her house immediately following Rachel's death, the ending of Apartheid does not solve South Africa's problems, and Anton never steps into his adult life.

"It's true. I've wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he's never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do. Not read the classics at a famous university or learn a foreign language or travel the world or marry a woman he loves. Not hold real power in his hands. Not going to bend fate to his will. Not even going to finish his novel, because, let's continue to be honest, after nearly twenty years he hasn't really started it. Not ever going to do much of anything."

“Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It's just the living part we still have to work out.”

The beginning of this book was unsettling for me. There is an omniscient narrator who also jumps into the minds of the characters, shifting from third to first person in the narration. When I voiced my confusion, a friend sent me a link to an interview with Galgut where he states:"I realised that there was another way to deal with the narrative; that I could move fluidly in and out of scenes in the same way a movie camera does. I carried over a few other conventions from cinema too, such as cutting from one character to another without a break, or moving away from the main action to some arbitrary event happening on the sidelines. The voice of the book also moves forward continuously, without a break, in the same way a film runs on to its end. All of this was liberating and exciting, and cause for great anxiety."

With this fresh look at the structure of the book, I was all in and settled into these completely fleshed out characters and the dynamics of the Swart family. Anton and Astrid are self-centered and enjoy the privilege of being white. Their younger sister, Amor, insists that her mother's dying request be honored. She gets a lot of blow back from the family and leaves home, having little contact with her siblings. On her father's death she refuses to accept her inheritance. The question of how or if you can give up your privilege is implied. This is a great question (and one I have no answer to) and has implications in the U.S. as well.

Salome, who is the primary caretaker of the family, has no voice in the story. With this choice, Galgut shows that someone like Salome hasn't and still does not have a voice in South Africa.

What really carries this novel for me is Galgut's wondrous prose. I went back and re-read all of my marked passages, savoring each (and frequently reading aloud to whomever I could get to listen).

“What happens in a room lingers there invisibly, all deeds, all words, always. Not seen, not heard, except by some, and even then imperfectly. In this very room both birth and death have taken place. Long ago, maybe, but the blood is still visible on certain days, when time wears thin.”
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,079 reviews555 followers
November 18, 2021
For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans...

This is one of those reading experiences that lurks at the back of your mind for a long time after you have finished it. It has been difficult for me to process my thoughts, and instead I ended up writing a lengthy review of another book I had finished in the interim.

For a person of my ethnicity (white) and age (52), a lot of the book is ‘lived’ history. And it is quite disconcerting to read about events you experienced first-hand (like Galgut, I myself was a conscript.) What makes it even more difficult though is the jaundiced, cynical lens that Galgut uses to compress four decades of South African history into just on 300 pages by focusing on four generations of a single white family, described as “typical”.

Many reviews have honed in on the ‘fall’ of the Swart family, but I honestly think this is a bit simplistic and not a true reflection of Galgut’s concern with the passage of time and mortality, especially when contrasted against a generally indifferent universe. (There is a beautiful passage at the end where a thunderstorm erupts over the Swart farm, with the rain as the ultimate symbol of equality in that it falls on anything and everything, which also reminded me of Shylock’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech.)

When you tackle ‘lived’ history as a subject, the South African author has no choice but to grab the thorny nettle of politics. That is, how to write a political novel that is not ostensibly political. If you veer too much into polemic and turn your characters into soapboxes, you alienate your readers. The trick is to strike a delicate balance between their fictional lives and the ‘lived’ history that they are navigating on your behalf.

This book also reminded me of Tales of the Metric System (2014) by Imraan Coovadia, which uses the literary device of ten days spread across four decades (whereas Galgut looks at four deaths in the Swart family over a long period.) Of course, looking at other books and writers in the context of Galgut’s Booker win raises the question: Why does he get to be the ‘voice’ of South African history?

I think this is probably a question Galgut was polishing his answer to well before his Booker award announcement: “Let me say this has been a great year for African writing, and I'd like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard, from the remarkable continent I'm part of. Please keep listening to us, there's a lot more to come.”

The ‘great year’ refers to Mohamed Mbougar Sarr from Senegal becoming the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize in literature, and Tanzanian-born Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I was amused to read an AP News headline stating that ‘Booker winner Damon Galgut laments South Africa’s gloom’. Despite being doom- and gloom-laden (not at all a very flattering portrait of our ‘mongrel nation’ this, with even our accent coming under fire for the violence it inflicts on poor innocent vowels), it is nonetheless a really funny book that is generous in its humanity. (It is this innate sense of the absurd that distinguishes Galgut from fellow ‘doom and gloom’ prophet J.M. Coetzee, for example, himself a two-time Booker winner.)

A lot has been made of the ‘mixed-up’ narrative voice in ‘The Promise’, which seems to be a literary reflection of South Africa’s deurmekaar status. What I loved about this aspect is that it forces the reader to slow down and pay attention to both the writing and the story, instead of mindlessly consuming the text. There were numerous instances where I had to backtrack to find out which character we had suddenly segued to, or what event, and there were even more times I found myself reading chunks aloud to taste Galgut’s wonderful cadences and rhythms on my tongue.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
November 3, 2021
Winner of the Booker Prize 2021

I have enjoyed reading Galgut before (particularly Arctic Summer and In a Strange Room) so I had high expectations of this one, and these were mostly met, making it my favourite of the five books on this year's Booker longlist I have read so far, though A Passage North is arguably just as good.

There is always a lot of political baggage associated with writing from the perspective of white South Africa, and on the whole Galgut succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls. This is a family story in four parts, each in a different decade, and each loosely representing a season. It is not much of a spoiler to say that the central event of each of the four parts is the premature death of one of the family members. Looming over it all is a conversation which the youngest daughter (and moral centre) of the family Amor overhears as her Jewish mother is dying in the mid 1980s. The mother's dying wish, to which her husband agrees, is to give the ramshackle house on the edge of the family farm to Salome, a loyal farm servant.

The other three deaths, which occur at roughly ten year intervals each of which occurs at a significant juncture of South African history, are of the father and Amor's two elder siblings Astrid and Anton. The father is a typical Boer landowner, and Astrid's attitudes are similar. Anton moves from a radical youth in which he deserts the army to a more compromised position as a largely failing alcoholic writer, whose unfinished novel is both similar and very different to the book in which it is described.

I do have a certain sympathy with the perspective that having two white South Africans on a longlist seems a little politically insensitive given that as far as I am aware, no black ones have ever been included, but if An Island is as good as this one, the decision may be justified on literary grounds.

This review barely scratches the surface of what could be said about this book, so I recommend this one, a South African perspective from But_I_thought_
Profile Image for Claire Fuller.
Author 12 books2,153 followers
August 13, 2021
I've only read a couple of books from the Booker Prize long list so far, and already I can see this winning. It's layered, clever, uncomfortable, incredibly accomplished in its writing, subtle in its message - although it's also clearly there, and still a great story. There are four parts to it, each of them detailing a death in a white South African family. In the first - Ma - we meet the family, made up of the surviving husband, three children, aunt, uncle and various others. The youngest child hears her father promise her dying mother that he will give Salome, the family's black maid, her house. This is the titular promise, but also of course a way of looking at race in South Africa and what has been promised, and who should even be allowed to promise something, when it might not have been theirs in the first place. In terms of the writing, Galgut plays fast and loose with time and point of view - moving locations and times almost within a sentence, and roaming from third person into second and back again, making it feel like the reader is part of this often racist and troubled family. I kept trying to watch to see how he did it, but then finding myself swept up in the story and characters. Tremendous.
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