Review: Damon Galgut's Booker Prize-winning The Promise is a provocative take on the scars of South African history

Booker Prize winner, South African writer Damon Galgut. Picture: Getty Images
Booker Prize winner, South African writer Damon Galgut. Picture: Getty Images

The title of this Booker-winning novel by Damon Galgut refers to the promise, of a white South African farmer's wife, to give her faithful black South African servant a house. The promise is made in the first few pages of the novel - and not resolved until the last few pages.

The servant, Salome, lives in a small dwelling within walking distance of the homestead, but remains in the background throughout the novel, serving the white family from the kitchen.

The story is more about how the white family, named Swart, on the land in South Africa, lives through the turbulent years from apartheid to the present day.

Under apartheid, in 1986, the Swart family (and "swart" is Afrikaans for black) enjoy a comfortable life on a profitable farm in the belief that "majority rule means communism". When a young, white child speaks of the gift of the house to a black woman, her older brother exclaims, "do you have no idea what country you're living in?" A black servant finds "it is not always possible to please two white people simultaneously" and, of course, a black servant cannot attend the funeral of her white mistress.

There are signs of trouble within the family: different religions, unfaithfulness, a son deserts from the army. References are made to protest marches and rioting spilling out of the black townships. Not all roads are safe to travel. But apart from taking a few precautions designed to ensure their safety, and a stone-throwing incident, the unrest seems distant to the family.

The second part of the novel is set in 1995. Nelson Mandela has moved from "a cell to a throne". South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup: "the beefy Boer and the old terrorist" shake hands. The family struggles to accept the new order. A white man in hospital is surprised - shocked - to be in the same ward as a black man. The hospital has had its name changed.

But the son who deserted from the army is now a hero for doing so, and the blacks can visit the graves of whites in the cemetery - "not (get) buried there, though, no, of course not!"

In part three, Mandela is replaced by Mbeki as President and white men have to face the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and "admit to doing those horrible, necessary things".

There is violence and bribery involving the family. There are fortunes to be made in the construction and maintenance of security systems. Adultery crosses racial lines. Mabo-type claims are being made to sections of the family's land. But at a funeral service "there's a black nanny, sitting with the (white) family!"

So to the final part with President Zuma's resignation (2018): corruption in government is exposed, power failures, the drought in Capetown. "No lights, no water, lean times in the land of plenty" leads to an inevitable conclusion to The Promise.

Author David Galgut was born in South Africa in 1963, and has lived through the changes he depicts in this book. He has observed these changes, and has opinions on their nature.

Many of these observations and opinions are attributed to the characters in the novel - as dialogue or thoughts, for the most part expressed implicitly - with gentle, and often not-so-gentle irony.

Galgut is tolerant of the Jewish religion, and not so tolerant of other religions and their practitioners. He is cynical about the behavior of most of his characters.

He intrudes into the narrative. He speaks to his characters. The few black characters in The Promise are in minor roles, so Galgut does not investigate their responses to the changes in any depth.

Occasionally, Galgut speaks directly to the reader. Punctuation is sparse but by using short sentences, the novel remains very readable. As the story progresses, the author becomes more forceful with his opinions, culminating in his describing a church congregation with "we are the rainbow nation, which is to say it's a mixed and motley and mongrel assembly . . . restive and ill at ease".

Is this his analogy of South Africa today?

Galgut was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 (The Good Doctor) and again in 2010 (In A Strange Room) before winning the award in 2021 with The Promise. He is not as scarred from living under the apartheid regime as previous South African winners of the Booker, Nadine Gordimer and J.M.Coetzee. Galgut is the next generation.

It is difficult to tell if he believes South Africans fare better or worse without apartheid. Certainly the white Swart family fare worse. However, whether their demise is due to their own inherent failings, or the changes they were forced to undergo, or a combination of both is a question this novel poses.

  • Russell Wenholz worked in South Africa throughout 1970 as a land surveyor. He returned in 2005 and 2007 as a tourist.
This story Provocative take on South Africa first appeared on The Canberra Times.