Even though Damon Galgut’s The Promise has won the Booker Prize this year, it is easy to be dismissive of the novel. Readers, and in particular those with MFA degrees in creative writing, might be forgiven for pulling it apart. The Promise would never survive the scrutiny — the collective glare of fault-finding irises — of a writers’ workshop. Eloquent horror would be expressed at its narrative style, its hasty shifts in points-of-view, its unpunctuated dialogue, (“whither inverted commas, question marks?”), its tendency to rely on metaphors and similes. Par.....
Even though Damon Galgut’s The Promise would never survive the scrutiny — the collective glare of fault-finding irises — of a writers’ workshop. Eloquent horror would be expressed at its narrative style, its hasty shifts in points-of-view, its unpunctuated dialogue, (“whither inverted commas, question marks?”), its tendency to rely on metaphors and similes. Participant writers, their own talents on the verge of an uncertain budding, would quibble over whether Mr Galgut’s fluid prose is attempting to be Joycean or Woolfian, but fails to be either, thereby failing to fully realise its artistic intent.  

That The Promise defies the rules of compelling fiction as stated by style guides and craft memoirs, and adhered to by creative-writing workshoppers, is what makes it spectacular. Emotionally turbulent. Attentive to small acts of familial cruelty. Informed by the brutal sweep of political events. Jumpy in its storytelling, as though convulsed by a nightmare. Meditative in noting the beauty of the night sky, the odours of the earth when it is dug up, the movement of a caterpillar upon a leaf. 

The novel tells of the white South African Swart family that owns a farm on the edges of Pretoria, a rambling place of haphazard design. The family’s tragic history is chronicled through four funerals over four decades of tumult in South Africa. Each section of the book is titled after the member of the family who has passed away — Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton. These neat divisions are perhaps a heroic bid to create order amidst the chaos of feelings and incidents in an atmosphere suffused with death, its rituals, its scents. It is at the first funeral in 1986 that one learns of a promise that has been made. Two weeks before Ma, or Rachel dies, she holds her husband Herman “Manie” Swart’s hand and asks him to promise that he will give a small house on the farm to the family’s black maid, Salome. This scene, a parable of the many forgotten promises made to the people of South Africa, is observed by 13-year-old Amor, the youngest daughter of the Swarts. 

It is through Amor that The Promise reveals its unquiet emotional core. Amor, the child who is a blur, barely visible in a room, becomes the young woman, who, in 1995, in a taxi on her way home to her father’s funeral, discovers that “…she likes the feeling of being between two places, recently departed and not yet arrived.” Amor, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Durban, “…is driven to do it, something compulsive in how she seeks out suffering and tries to ease it.” It is through Amor — the restless protagonist who moves from city to city — that the novel tells of an abiding loneliness. Grief then, will wander away from home, seeking meaning, purpose, or dissipation. 

Ruptured, alienated people appear frequently in Mr Galgut’s novels. Amor’s self-imposed exile is comparable with that of the character Damon, a young South African who travels through Greece, Africa, and India in the 2010 Booker-shortlisted novel, In a Strange Room. The narrative technique of The Promise, the spectre of an “I” or “we” makes an appearance between the shifting and all-knowing third-person narration, heightening the novel’s atmosphere of unease. 

Apart from the cast of parents, siblings, aunts, brandy-and-Coke drinking uncles, dominees, there is one other protagonist, voiceless and invisible. But its presence pervades The Promise; it alters cityscapes, relationships, faces. Time. Its relentless advance is evident through political changes in South Africa. At the beginning of the novel, there is a State of Emergency, “…hanging over the land like a dark cloud and the news under censorship and the mood all over a bit electrified, a bit alarmed…” The narrative arc swells to include South Africa’s difficult shift to democracy. In the final section, thirty-one years later, the “promise” of a stable and democratic South Africa lies in shambles under Jacob Zuma. The President, observes Anton, is “…the fat termite queen…” And like the country, the novel’s protagonists too, will not live up to their lives’ promise. Only Amor, who is now 44 years old, will find a way to turn back the clock, if only briefly, to recollect a time when she was struck by lightning: “And afterwards, when Pa carried you down into the house, everyone came running, Ma and Astrid and Anton, there was tumult and you were loved, they closed over you like a flower.” Only Amor will redeem her family, now dead, before moving on.

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