The Promise by Damon Galgut

Reviewed by Karen Lane, Need a Read
The Promise by Damon Galgut has won the coveted Booker Prize for 2021! He’s only the third South African to have won it in the Award’s prestigious 50 years of existence. It’s a sensitive, clever and challenging literary read. It’s beautifully crafted, as we’ve come to expect from Damon Galgut. It touches South African nerves, at the same time proving a real treat for lovers of considered words and fine structure.

The book is divided into four parts – four family funerals, each one happening four decades apart beginning in the mid 1980’s during the state of emergency and finishing up in 2018. In the background, a different president is in power, and a different spirit hangs over the country, while in the foreground the Swart family fights over what they call their farm, on a worthless piece of land outside Pretoria. Jon Day of the Guardian sums up The Promise as follows: “The head of the family is Herman “Manie” Swart, an unreconstructed racist who runs a reptile park called Scaly City and has recently found religion. His wife, Rachel, has converted (or reverted) to Judaism on her deathbed, and her death marks the beginning of the book. She leaves behind three children: Anton, Astrid and Amor. The “promise” of the title is a literal one, made by Rachel before she dies: to give a house on the farm to their black servant, Salome. It’s also a metaphorical one. Over the years, as members of the family find reasons to deny or defer Salome’s inheritance, the moral promise – the potential, or expectation – of the next generation of South Africans, and of the nation itself, is shown to be just as compromised as that of their parents.”

A book to relish by one of South Africa’s finest authors. Read it slowly and take it all in.

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