Booker 2021: The Promise is a bleak take on South Africa's fault lines

Damon Galgut's The Promise tells the story of a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria.
Damon Galgut's The Promise tells the story of a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria.PHOTOS: NIGEL MAISTER, CHATTO & WINDUS

The Promise

By Damon Galgut
Chatto & Windus/Paperback/304 pages/$30.94/Available here
3 out of 5

Every year, a few "important" but spectacularly unmemorable novels end up on the Booker Prize shortlist. Damon Galgut's The Promise - the story of a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria - may be one of them.

Spanning several decades, this evocative novel returns to familiar Galgut territory and tells the bleak story of a family living in post-apartheid South Africa. Each of its four sections is named after a character - Ma, Pa, Astrid and Anton - who is either dead or about to die.

The title refers to a promise the family made to a black woman who works for them. They told her she could have her own house and land, but years go by and they do not make good on their word.

South African novelist Galgut, a three-time Booker nominee, has gained plaudits from literary heavyweights such as Colm Toibin and Edmund White. There is no question he is a masterful writer: subtle, sensitive and a keen observer of life.

In his latest book, the narrator shifts fluidly between characters, from one ambiguous "he" to another, prompting the reader to ask: Who is telling this story? Whose story is this?

The best thing about The Promise is its prose. Sentences are sparse and clipped, defined by snatches of sight or sound that sketch out scenes as they happen. The result is writing that is intimate and throbs with a sense of immediacy.

"Blam blam! The sound, some sound, yanks him from the hotel room, drops him back into his body, half capsized on the sofa at home. Lights on, TV on, front door standing open. Anton waking up."

Eventually, it becomes clear that the Swart family, "just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans", is a kind of mini allegory for a country grappling with a new era of lost promises and delayed restitution.

The novel moves with a muted, minor-key intensity. The style is likely to elicit admiration from writerly types, even though it might fail to grip others who want something more boundary- pushing or engaging. I would not be surprised if it wins.

If you like this, read: The Good Doctor (Atlantic Books, 2003, $19.94, available here), Galgut's Booker-nominated novel about a doctor working in a rural hospital in post-apartheid South Africa.

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