The Promise, Damon Galgut

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

As one participant in yesterday's discussion put it - the story of a crumbling family, in a crumbling society, The Promise tells the tale, in particular, of three siblings, Anton, Astrid and Amor, their parents and extended family, against the backdrop of the ending of apartheid in South Africa.

From a white farming family, the three sibling's story is told in a series of deaths and the ramifications of each of those on them, and a long-standing promise to the black maid and lifelong companion of them all - Salome. Starting with the death of their mother, and her deathbed return to her Jewish faith, the ructions that this, and the promise she extracts from her husband to give Salome the house and land that she lives on (pointed echo here with the current Australian Voice discussions), start out a story that then moves onwards in time, in a meandering roundabout sort of manner. Next up is their father, his attachment to a Christian Minister and the religion that has some feeling of a cult about it, the father's subsequent death and brother Anton's inheriting of the farm. But Anton's troubled and tortured and never settles, whilst middle child Astrid marries in haste, has kids, and strives for something that she can't describe. Meanwhile younger sister Amor can no longer stomach what she sees as the morally bankrupt, unquestioning nature of the family and breaks away, building a life that's based on her own hardwork and sacrifice, not her inheritance. Somehow though, this is, in itself, oddly morally ambiguous, despite her good works, she's as lonely, disconnected and empty as her other siblings. 

Galgut's writing, and powers of observation are acute in this novel, as is his willingness to call out the white gaze. He uses a stream of conscious approach that takes its directional cues from small observations and happenings, moving the story from one viewpoint to another, gently but unrelentingly probing the easy view, revealing the truth behind the things we know and what we're all prepared to say.

Disturbing on one level, engaging and, once you adjust to the methodology behind the writing, and the printed styling (no grammatical marks for example), absolutely enthralling. 

One that made the vast majority of the participants in the discussion very keen to seek out further work by the same author.

Year of Publication

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.

Review The Promise, Damon Galgut
Karen Chisholm
Monday, October 9, 2023

Add new comment

This is a book review site, with no relationship whatsoever with any of the authors mentioned here.

We do not provide a method for you to contact authors for any reason and comments of this nature are automatically deleted.

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.