Published by Chatto & Windus
The Promise revolves around a white South African family—Manie and Rachel Swart and their children Astrid, Anton and Amor—and an unkept promise.
Manie promises the dying Rachel that he will give their maid Salome the deeds to the house in which she lives. But once Rachel dies, he makes no attempt to keep his promise.
However, the conversation between Manie and Rachel is overheard by the youngest of the Swart children, Amor, who assumes that her father will carry out her dying mother’s wishes. When he shows no sign of honouring it, she asks him about it, only to be dismissed. Although Salome’s house is a run-down, three-room place—of no interest to anyone but herself and her son Lukas—most of the Swarts either refuse to give it to her or, like Anton, keep putting it off. But Amor refuses to let it go.
The book is structured around four funerals over four decades, starting with Rachel’s. By the time Manie dies, South Africa is free of apartheid. As the story moves from funeral to funeral, we see the characters—especially the three Swart children—grow.
Amor, strong and uncompromising, is the heart of the book, the only one who cares about Salome and is determined to see justice done. She moves away and keeps her family at a distance, seeing them as little as possible. Amor works as a nurse on an AIDS ward, and the way she drives herself almost as if she is trying to make up for her family’s misdeeds.
It is interesting that although Salome is essential to the plot, she stays in the background. You almost never hear her speak. Damon Galgut said that he did it deliberately to make the point that women like Salome do not have a voice in South Africa. In an interview with The Financial Times, Galgut says that he hoped her silence would bother the reader.
This is one of those books where the minor characters are also vividly described: Alwyn Simmers, the nearly blind pastor who manipulates Manie to leave him a large part of his land; Marina, Manie’s vociferous sister; and Cherise Coutts, the lawyer who is working her way through several husbands.
Galgut moves between the points of view of characters—not just the Swarts but also some of the people around them. Using these different perspectives, he paints a picture of South Africa over the decades from the last days of apartheid to the present time. The story takes place against the background of major events in the country: the freeing of Nelson Mandela; the first Rugby World Cup to be hosted in South Africa; the AIDS epidemic that was exacerbated by President Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to admit there was a crisis; and the rising crime rate resulting from the vast gap between rich and poor.
It is also a book about promises not kept—not just the promise to do right by Salome, but also the country’s pledge to improve the lives of its black populations. Galgut writes about how the hope of an bright imagined future dissipates under reality: many of the characters, including Anton and Astrid, had thought their lives would be far more successful than they actually are.
In the FT interview, Galgut said he chose funerals because “[t]hey are events that tend to draw a family together even when they’d rather not be in the same place…That’s when interesting things play out. Death sets things off.”
The book is thought-provoking and well-written. It left me thinking about the characters and wondering how their lives could have turned out. The way Galgut writes, you feel you are in the room with these people, one of the guests at a funeral.
There is humour here too—it sneaks in, catching the reader unawares. Not the laugh-out-loud kind of humour but the kind that has you smiling in recognition. For example, this description of Manie’s funeral: “Tea and sandwiches have been laid out on the patio by Laetitia Simmers and other church volunteers, while guests mill around on the grass. Seen from upstairs, it’s all hats and hairdos and bald spots, in aimless circulation.”
This is the first book I read by Galgut, and I really enjoyed it. I liked the way he weaves the different threads into a rich, detailed portrait of a family—and a country.
 “Damon Galgut on his Booker winner The Promise: ‘Death sets things off’”, Frederick Studemann, 5 November 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/2ff91d34-93eb-42d8-bf36-62d5fef69cd2 (paywall).
 See footnote above.