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Europa Editions, 2021

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Ella fox-martens, the promise, by damon galgut, reviewed by ella fox-martens.

Somewhere in apartheid Pretoria, 1985, Rachel Swart, a recently re-converted Jewish woman, dies of cancer. On her deathbed, she feverishly forces her Christian, Afrikaans husband to promise to give the maid, Salome, the house where she already lives. Despite its illegality— Black people could not own property at the time —the conversation is overheard by Rachel’s teenage daughter Amor, who spends the next thirty years attempting to convince her father and two siblings to make good on her mother’s dying wish. 

So goes the setup of Damon Galgut’s Man Booker Award–winning novel The Promise , which is much less about the Swarts, and much more about deconstructing the place where such a story could feasibly be told. “Do you have no idea what country you’re living in?” Amor’s brother asks her. “No,” Galgut answers for us, “she doesn’t … history has not yet trod on her.” By the time The Promise ends in 2018, history will have ground its boot not only on Amor and her family, but the entire nation. Galgut, though– whom I interviewed in 2021 –welcomes the death of the old South Africa, which allows him to consider the central question of what grows out of its ashes.

Each of The Promise ’s four sections centers around the death of a different Swart. They’re also set in defining eras of South African politics, from the State of Emergency to Mandela’s presidency, Mbeki’s inauguration and Jacob Zuma’s eventual resignation. The romp through South Africa’s sordid past is a bizarre one, populated by impossible coincidences and brutal violence, with a chorus of odd supporting characters: a case of snakes, an incestuous priest, a yoga teacher called Mowgli, an evil reptile park salesman. 

The Promise ’s sweeping scope and utilization of quasi-magical realism to evoke the dysfunction of life in postcolonial states renders it closer to Midnight’s Children than Coetzee’s Disgrace . There is a neat strangeness to the proceedings that suggests a fable; Amor herself gets struck by lightning as a child. It’s a risky approach, given that apartheid and its consequences are raw enough for this kind of fictionalization to feel condescending. Yet, from a distance, the last thirty years—with the absurd scandals, dashed hopes, and constant corruption—do seem like a staged tragedy. After all, it was Jane Taylor’s 1998 play Ubu and the Truth Commission , with its puppets and talking crocodile, that emerged as one of the most painful artistic representations of racist violence under apartheid. The decision to open the novel with a Fellini quote is then eminently sensible. Disdaining unflinching realism as a sufficient vehicle for conveying the weight of history, The Promise instead offers a narrative that is only matched in surrealism by the facts themselves. In South Africa, Galgut implies, art can only ever hope to imitate life.

Even more polarizing is Galgut’s knowingly theatrical voice, which is unsurprising given his background as a playwright. Thoughts swirl around on the page, their origins unclear. Rachel’s ghost floats off to evaluate her own dead body before she is swiftly excised on grounds of unimportance. Galgut’s direction is ever-present, intruding upon events to offer moral judgements, or to muddy the waters until objective truth is blurred. “The family has returned,” he writes, “or maybe they have never left.” He picks people up and sets them down again. Perhaps they were in the living room, or the lounge. Amor left on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, either in the evening or morning. As he notes, whatever actually happens “doesn’t matter.” Galgut implicates the reader with his frequent asides. “Shall we say” and “let us pretend” have the effect of rapping on the glass of an aquarium to startle the fish. The intention that underlies Galgut’s chaotic narration is simple: The reader must never become comfortable enough to forget that this is a story. Galgut’s refusal to allow suspension of disbelief strips the machinations of fiction bare, revealing people as symbols and place as setting—drawing constant attention to the ugly wiring that sustains personal and national propaganda.

What saves The Promise from being an exercise in history is its pitch-black sense of humor. Galgut even manages to force a genuine laugh during a murder scene with his stinging depiction of “South Africa’s finest”—two corrupt and incompetent detectives, one of whom is a little too happy to be examining a body. His ability to eviscerate racist, bourgeois white South Africans is unparalleled:

Astrid huffs audibly. Since she married a rich man, she finds the notion of work distasteful, especially when it’s a job. Running a house and raising a family is bad enough, but that’s why you have servants, to help you. It seems to Astrid that her little sister has chosen the life of a servant instead, and what for? To punish herself?

This is Galgut’s wisest stylistic choice. Without the embrace of satire, The Promise would never work as well as it does. When it comes to apartheid fiction by white writers, earnest sentimentality can reduce an otherwise competent novel into a spectacle of pearl-clutching and exploitation, placing white guilt above Black experience. Galgut never falls into that trap, mostly because he is always aware of his characters as devices. 

Yes, as others have noted , Salome is barely developed—nobody is. As Amor journeys home for the last time, having devoted her life to serving others out of a misguided sense of martyrdom, she proves herself incapable of seeing Salome (or Black people at large) as anything other than the answer to her own problems of conscience. Decades have passed, and Salome is an old woman now. As her son Lukas makes clear, it’s “thirty years too late” to be grateful for anything. Amor’s supposedly noble resolution to keep Rachel’s promise has always been self-serving. Without her guilt, she barely exists. Her peaceful ruminations on her own death sum up Galgut’s core idea elegantly: “Other branches will fill the space,” he writes. “Other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word.” Like a cauterized wound, the Swarts and the South Africa they represent need to die for the new country to decide its own future. With that hope, Galgut ends The Promise on a wistful note as Amor climbs down from the roof, having just scattered her brother’s ashes. She descends towards a fragile blank slate, where the past must be laid to rest in order to survive whatever happens next.

Published on March 17, 2022

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For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from other voices, we sounds the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.

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And as they drive away, Rachel’s body is already being lifted into its final container and the lid screwed down. For ever. The shomer is in attendance and when the other assistants have gone he continues to sit in his lonely chair against the wall, chanting the tehillim. For the dead must have company all the way to the end.
The need to fuck like bonobos is uppermost these days and he certainly came here today for no noble reason. Only one thing on my mind since hearing about Ma, funny that, just how it works, Eros fighting Thanatos, except you don’t think about sex, you suffer it. A scratchy, hungry thing going on in the basement. Torment of the damned, the fire that never goes out. But still, despite bodily appetites, he feels that he’s chasing some emotion he can’t quite name. Might even be love, though that would surprise him.

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It isn't much, she says. I know that. Three rooms and a broken roof. On a tough piece of land. Yes. But for the first time, it'll belong to your mother. Her name on the title deed. Not my family's. That isn't nothing. Yes, Salome agrees, speaking Setswana. It isn't nothing. It is nothing, Lukas says. Smiling again, in that cold, furious way. It's what you don't need any more, it's what you don't mind throwing away. Your leftovers. That's what you're giving my mother, thirty years too late. As good as nothing.

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review novel promise


Charleston, SC (29403)

Some clouds. Low 52F. Winds SSW at 5 to 10 mph..

Some clouds. Low 52F. Winds SSW at 5 to 10 mph.

Updated: March 16, 2023 @ 9:43 pm

In 1956, seven years before Damon Galgut was born, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston published a devastating expose of apartheid South Africa under the title “Naught for Your Comfort.” Galgut’s latest novel is called, almost optimistically, “The Promise,” but it, like Huddleston’s book, offers nothing for a reader’s comfort. The failure to deliver on the novel’s central promise suggests that if South Africa ever had a great future, that future is well behind it.

Review: 'The Promise' a satirical, sometimes dark novel of moral decay in South Africa

THE PROMISE . By Damon Galgut. Europa Editions. 256 pages. $25.

More particularly, what Galgut does in this novel is to follow in the footsteps of those two great chroniclers of the state of White South Africa, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Galgut, however, does not approach his subject with the political commitment of Gordimer or the philosophical earnestness of Coetzee. Neither of those novelists would have had the ironical sense of humor to name their central White family the Swarts — a perfectly common Afrikaner surname, but meaning “black” in Afrikaans. And although both Gordimer and Coetzee can be disconcertingly detailed in their references to bodily functions and moral decay, neither would have followed Galgut’s narrator into the bathroom and recorded the number of visits paid by mourners attending a funeral.

That is perhaps this novel’s greatest achievement — that it can be about moral decay and the destruction of promise in South Africa as a result of apartheid, but still mordantly funny, satirically poking at intrafamilial tensions and social pretense. Flipping from point-of-view to point-of-view, sometimes even in the same sentence, Galgut’s description of the sleeping household gathered in the Swart family house the night of the mother's death is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s nocturnal observation of the inhabitants of Llaregub in “Under Milk Wood.” Tannie Marina “achieves only the beginning of a dream in which she’s on a picnic with PW Botha” before she is woken by a kick from her husband “who lies twitching beside her like a hit-and-run victim, waiting for medical assistance.”

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Before she died, Rachel had reaffirmed her faith in Judaism and insisted on Jewish funeral rites. That does not sit well with the narrow Calvinism of the rest of the Swarts and causes the rabbi conducting the funeral great difficulty: “His sense of fairness has not been taxed this far since he first engaged morally with the question of Israel.”

Rachel’s Jewishness is tangential to “The Promise,” however. It is her other pre-death insistence that drives the action, a promise wrung from her husband that he would give the family’s maid Salome the house that she lived in. Over the four decades spanned by the novel covering seminal moments in modern South African history — from SADF killings in Katlehong through Mandela’s accession and the Springbok victory in the 1995 rugby World Cup, AIDS denialist Thabo Mbeki’s second inauguration in 2004 and Jacob Zuma’s resignation in 2016 — the promise is never fulfilled.

By the time the last remaining Swart sibling, Amor, finally makes the offer of the house to Salome, it is too late. Her son Lukas, Amor’s age-mate and childhood friend, is incensed by the belated gift. “It’s nothing,” he spits. “Your leftovers. ... It already belongs to us.” In fact, however, there is already another claim on the land by families who were forcibly removed from it under apartheid so, as Amor says, Salome may “be given the land and then lose it again.” At least Amor makes over to Salome all of what remains of the inheritance she has come into, but she cannot escape the barb that Lukas throws at her, a barb that targets White South Africans more generally — that over the last 30 years she “lived off (her) family” and “took their money” while doing nothing to fulfill her mother’s promise.

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In the midst of all this ugliness, Galgut ends the novel with a highveld rainstorm. As his wry narrator admits, the rain could be “some cheap redemptive symbol in a story,” but his writing here as elsewhere touches unusually beautiful heights. Like the snow at the end of Joyce’s famous short story, the rain falls “from a turbulent sky onto rich and poor, happy and unhappy alike. It falls onto tin shacks as impartially as it falls onto opulence. The rain has no prejudice. It falls without judgment on both the living and the dead and continues to fall like that, for hours through the night.” And in the morning, a “dripping calmness” is left behind with “musky phenomenal odors twin(ing) up like tendrils on the air.”

With a quiet fatalism, Amor is left facing “whatever it is that happens next.” Still without comfort, but with no more promises to keep or break. Just the unillusioned future of what remains of a troubled family and a troubled land.

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Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African literature at the College of Charleston.

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Book review: The Promise by Damon Galgut

the promise damon galgut

The promise of the title was made to Rachel by their father. Rachel wanted their black servant, Salome, to have the house she lived in on the farm. Amor witnessed his agreement and presses him on it but to no avail.

You might therefore expect the promise, its consequences, and its effect on Salome and her son to be central to the novel. Instead it is background, as is apartheid and its aftermath, the changing political culture, crime and corruption, truth and reconciliation, and outbreaks of violence. They are all part of the lives of the characters, and they shape them in profound ways, but for the characters money, sex and the search for meaning are to the fore.

In a sense this is a powerful comment. Something that would be transformative for Salome is of only marginal interest to the family, an irritant in the corner of their eyes. Despite the fact that Salome grew up with Rachel, and her son was a childhood friend of Rachel’s children, that she is a constant presence in their home, cooking and cleaning and nurturing, we have only occasional glimpses of her and learn little about her thoughts.

However, there is also an implicit promise to the reader that this conflict will drive the story. I kept waiting for the novel to get going, dismissing the family soap opera as a prelude to the real narrative. When I was halfway through and realised that their patchwork of inner musings was the novel, I wondered why I should keep reading. The Swarts just aren’t that interesting (despite some of them dying in dramatic fashion).

The writing is good, there is lovely observation and moments of wry humour, but that will only get you so far. And ‘you’ are rather central to the narrative, which roves around various points of view. As well as the family all having their say, sometimes in alternating sentences in the same scene, minor characters appear for a few pages then fade away. Dialogue is not punctuated so it’s not always clear what is spoken and what is only thought.

A god-like narrator occasionally intervenes and breaks the frame, but not with any consistency, so the ‘you’ in any given sentence might be the reader, or a character accusing another in their thoughts, or addressing their own divided self.

I did read to the end, where there is a resolution of sorts, but it is contingent, the authorial voice points out it couldn’t have happened exactly as it’s told, the outcome is not what any of the various yous might have hoped for, it will not heal all that has gone before. In this, the family drama and the national one are neatly tied.

Overall, Booker Prize winner The Promise was interesting in many ways but felt too long, while Booker shortlisted The Good Doctor was a terse, brilliant read that told a complex story of post-apartheid South Africa through a confined cast of characters. Is it another case of right author, wrong book?

I received a copy of The Promise from the publisher via Netgalley. View The Promise on Goodreads

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Amina’s Bookshelf

Amina's Bookshelf


Review: The Promise

review novel promise

THE PLOT:  ‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut is a literary novel about a white South-African family. It opens with the youngest daughter, Amor, who overhears her father promise to give their black maid, Salome, a house. The rest of the novel spans forty years – through the end of Apartheid, truth and reconciliation and the AIDS epidemic – as Amor seeks to fulfil the promise. With no speechmarks and a rapidly moving narrator who can enter the minds of the characters, this novel is also about Amor’s siblings, growing up and the promise of youth.

RATING: Although this novel won the 2021 Booker Prize, it’s three and a half stars from me. It’s very well-written with lots of allegory and atmosphere but I didn’t enjoy the reading experience. Firstly, there are no speechmarks so it takes ages to work out if someone’s talking (I like the theme of the demarcation between speech and thought but I also like to be practical). Secondly, there are no scenes or chapters – it’s all one continuous stream of consciousness so there aren’t natural breaks. This means every time you pick it up it takes a while to get back into and it’s easiest to read each of the four parts (c.70 pages) in one go. Finally, it’s a slow burn because it’s focussed on the interior lives of the characters so there are very few external plot points to keep driving the narrative forward.

GOOD BITS:  The writing style is very accomplished, with lots of allegory and layers of meaning. The unusual style builds a lot of tension, mystery and atmosphere – in part because I didn’t know what was going on at first. This was perfect for a buddy read as there was lots to decipher and discuss – many of us could see this book being studied in English Literature classes. In particular, we wondered if the whole novel was a metaphor for South Africa and giving the land back to the black inhabitants. Indeed, there seems to be an interesting theme about the promise of youth for Amor, her siblings and the country as their lives don’t live up to their dreams or expectations.

NOT SO GOOD BITS:  The rapid changes in point of view (usually within one page) in a stream of consciousness format makes the whole book feel very close and interior and suffocating, and I wanted more external plot to sustain the narrative. I could feel myself physically perk up when something happened and then slump back into trudging through the minds of the characters. Because there weren’t enough external plot points acting as a barrier to Amor’s goal to fulfil the promise, I felt she became a weak, unsympathetic character who was lacking in agency. She could’ve done more to achieve her goal in the second half of the book so I stopped caring about the character.

OVERALL:  I’m going to be brutal… in my heart, I think I don’t like this book because it feels like a lame apology from a white South African. I just want to scream ‘give Salome her house’ aka ‘where’s the black South African story? Make space for Salome’s story!’ The whole book is about the superficial agonies of the white South African family who can’t fulfil their promise to a black maid and I think I’d prefer to read about the black maid’s life. It’s the one POV we never get. Even though this is deliberate and you only get glimpses of the history of South Africa and it’s stylistically very clever, it frustrates me that there’s a more interesting story hiding behind this one. I want to ask the writer why he couldn’t just give Salome her f***ing house.

However, I read this book with three other bookstagrammers who all enjoyed it more than me, so if you like complex, literary novels this may suit you. I’d recommend it to fans of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce and ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.

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The Michigan Daily

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One hundred and thirty-two years of editorial freedom

‘The Promise’: Anguish and apartheid define Damon Galgut’s latest Booker-nominated novel

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review novel promise

This review contains spoilers for Damon Galgut’s novel “The Promise.”

Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize three times , South African novelist Damon Galgut is a perennial favorite of the nomination committee. Galgut’s previous novels, “The Quarry” and “The Good Doctor,” are strikingly conceived and hauntingly written. Both are powerful tales of sorrow, struggle and religion that resonate deeply with readers, and Galgut’s latest book, “The Promise,” is no exception. “The Promise,” the favorite to win the Booker Prize this year, is a novel about South Africa during the golden years of Nelson Mandela, a time teeming with potential. It is also a novel about the disappointment of lost hopes and neglected promises — this juxtaposition reflects the complicated history of South Africa. 

Set on a family farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, beneath the arching sky of the veld , Galgut details the degeneration of a white Afrikaner family, the Swarts, over the course of four turbulent decades. As tragedies small and large afflict the family, a neglected promise haunts the survivors. With poetic, cutting prose and a striking moral message, “The Promise” is a powerful reckoning for a family and a country in turmoil.

The unusual composition of “The Promise” opens a window into the Swart family’s life at irregular intervals centered on four pivotal funerals, beginning with the death of the family’s matriarch, Rachel. At the funeral, Rachel’s children — the true protagonists of the book — first appear. Nineteen-year-old Anton, sarcastic, intelligent and impetuous, returns home from serving by obligation in South Africa’s military. His 17-year-old sister Astrid is beautiful, self-centered and manipulative. Finally, 13-year-old Amor, considered a strange child, views the world from afar in the disaffected manner of early adolescence. None of them close, the siblings are only reunited by subsequent funerals that span decades. All but Amor, the sole survivor by the end of the book, will change for the worse.

The namesake of “The Promise” is the words whispered by Rachel on her deathbed. Rachel’s loyal caregiver Salome (Black, like all the servants in the country at the time) lives in the “Lombard House,” a modest building at the edge of the family farm. Amor, only 13 at the time, invisible as always, overhears her mother say, “I really want her to have something. After everything she’s done.” “Ja, I promise,” chokes out Pa, his voice hoarse with grief. Though Amor confides in Anton, her young voice is drowned out by the adults following the funeral proceedings. Her quiet insistence sustains the promise for three decades in the face of opposition from her white relatives and indifference from Anton. At each funeral, the promise is again revisited and abandoned, fueling Amor’s ceaseless feelings of guilt. This guilt drives Amor to work as a nurse in an HIV ward, though she knows these efforts can hardly right the wrongs of the past. Perhaps the only moral character in the novel, Amor sustains the promise through the decades. 

Galgut’s prose is awe-inspiring, a mix of succinct description and effortless dialogue that binds the reader to the pages and compels them onward. Galgut’s command of the craft is so powerful that it transcends the plot of the book, especially when describing characters’ innermost thoughts. In one scene, a younger Anton’s reflections are narrated: “But a tiny sourness at the back of his throat seems always to have been there, though his life is pure and mild as milk. Wherefrom this curdling? There is a lie at the heart of everything and I have just discovered it in myself. Spit it out. What is wrong with you man?” Galgut writes without quotation marks, in a style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or, perhaps, Vonnegut. His unique style creates seamless passages from narration to dialogue, making for a rapid read. The book’s 250-odd pages flash by, and I was left with a bitter taste for the characters as well as a spinning, broadened mind. 

Galgut’s dialogue is plausible, the emotion tangible. Before Anton is forced out of the family, an exchange between him and his father (Manie) sticks in my mind: “Manie has brooded upon the events of the previous evening, like a hen upon a huge black egg. You have offended my marriage and religion and you shall pay. You must know, Pa, that I can never do it.” Though “The Promise” lacks imagery, it impresses elsewhere with deft characterization and fascinating dialogue.

Following Rachel’s death, Salome’s right to the house is left uncertain by the Swart siblings, who fail for decades to fulfill their mother’s promise. This largely resembles the outcome of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees , “courtlike bodies established by the new South African government in 1995 to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid.” Though these committees established an accepted truth about the damage caused by apartheid and often recommended reparations, compensation for these damages rarely materialized. Amor’s struggle to keep the promise echoes South Africa’s political struggles over the TRC and reparations payments. Though ultimately focused on the Swarts and their own agitated lives, Galgut’s framing of “The Promise” as a metaphor for reconciliation is subtly successful.  

Despite the slow burn of this underlying metaphor, the novel rarely addresses its own expansive political themes overtly until the last chapters of the book. Yet, in these final moments, the spirit of the nation shines through the pages. The optimism of a reunited country is captured when describing South Africa’s triumph in the rugby World Cup: “South Africa! The name used to be a cause for embarrassment but now it means something else. Truly we are a nation that defies gravity.” So too is the loss of faith those in South Africa had after President Jacob Zuma’s corruption scandal . The nation’s ecstasy after Zuma’s resignation in 2018 was palpable in “The Promise” — “Surely everybody can sense it, the change in atmosphere now that the bad man has resigned … Goodness will prevail across the land, the Guptas will be arrested, all the crooks will be locked up!” Though the novel is largely introspective, Galgut manages to convey the spirit of South Africa at some of its greatest moments of triumph and unease. 

Despite an underwhelming, poorly cathartic ending, Galgut’s novel resonated with me in the days after I finished it. Perhaps it was intentional, a fitting connection to South Africa’s ongoing struggle as a nation. Rarely are our own endings perfectly cathartic — we carry the traumas of the past even after their resolution. Reflecting on the flawed characters I know and the lost potential of my own country, glimmers of Galgut’s writing appear in the shadows of my own life. The true strength of this book is in its prose, dialogue and effortlessly vivid characterization. But I’ve said enough — seek out “The Promise” and discover Galgut’s style for yourself. 

Daily Arts Writer Sam Matthisson can be reached at [email protected] .

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Book : The Promise Author : Damon Galgut Publisher : Europa Price : $25

The plot of Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning,  The Promise , is built around a house and its land — the Swart family farm — and the questions of who will live in it, inherit it,  redeem  it. The drama of the novel hinges on a promise made by Manie, an Afrikaner, to his wife, Rachel, on her deathbed — that he would give their black maid, Salome, the deeds to the annexe she occupies. This promise would have died with Rachel had it not been overheard by her youngest child, Amor. The unfulfilled promise turns into a curse as the family starts losing one member after another.

The Promise by Damon Galgut, Europa, $25

Three decades of South African socio-political history — from the dying days of the apartheid to the disappointment of Jacob Zuma’s presidency — are woven into this saga of loss. Not only is  The Promise  one of Galgut’s most overtly political novels, but it is also one of his most inventive when it comes to narrative technique. Like Virginia Woolf, Galgut employs a free-floating narrator, providing the perspectives of primary characters and minor ones as well as of those with fleeting, spectral presence, such as roving jackals and ghosts. It is striking that, in a novel marked by the adventurous shape-shifting of its narrator, the voice of Salome, the very pivot of the book, is barely heard. Her ambitions and thoughts remain pointedly subdued. Galgut makes a bitterly deliberate case for such an omission, underlining the idea that Salome has indeed been silenced by those in control of her destiny.

J.M. Coetzee’s  Disgrace , another novel about a farm, history’s poison, and the question of inheritance, inevitably shadows  The Promise . Both books become allegories of larger historical realities. The Swart farm is not just a family property but also comes to stand in for contested land and, in turn, an entire contested country. In the novel’s accounting, white South Africans cannot inherit this land, and do not deserve to. As in  Disgrace , the only role appropriate for white people seems to be one of atonement.

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The novelist takes the £50,000 prize with a ‘strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself’

Damon Galgut is a clear and unsurprising Booker winner

Damon Galgut has won the Booker prize for his portrait of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid. The judges praised The Promise as “a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh”, and compared it to the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

This is is the first time Galgut will be walking away with the £50,000 prize, despite having been shortlisted twice before.. The Promise is his ninth novel, and his first in seven years. He becomes the third South African to win the prestigious fiction prize, after JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Through the lens of four sequential funerals, each taking place in a different decade, The Promise follows the Swarts, a white South African family who live on a farm outside Pretoria. The promise of the title is one the Swarts make – and fail to keep over the years – to give a home and land to the black woman who worked for them her whole life.

The novel is, according to the Booker judges, “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?”

“We felt among the judges that this book really is a tour de force. It combines an extraordinary story with rich themes – the history of the last 40 years in South Africa – in an incredibly well-wrought package,” said the chair of the Booker judges, historian Maya Jasanoff. “Before we even started talking about the individual titles, we had a more wide-ranging discussion about what it is we feel makes a book a winner. One of the judges drew a distinction between the very good and the great. For me, The Promise manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling – it’s a book that has a lot to chew on – with remarkable attention to structure and literary style. With each reading of this book, it revealed something new.”

Galgut, who grew up in Pretoria, where The Promise is set, and now lives in Cape Town, has described the Swart family as “a kind of amalgamation of everything I grew up with in Pretoria”.

“They’re a mix of English and Afrikaans, and a hodge-podge of creeds and beliefs, too. Not unusual for this part of the world. But what makes them ‘representative’ isn’t their characters, it’s the times they’re living through,” he said in an interview for the Booker prize .

Receiving the prize, Galgut said “This has been a great year for African writing. I’d like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I come from.”

He added “I hope people will take African writing a little more seriously now.”

Galgut said it was important to him that the book was funny. The Promise deals with the “heavy topics” of “funerals, death, decay and dereliction... I don’t think I would have wanted to spend four years writing a book that was pulling me down. Humour opened up a way for me to write about the human side of things, because the book’s not really about the death, it’s about the living.”

The Promise’s structure is formally inventive, with the narration shifting between perspectives; the Booker judges called it an “unusual narrative style [which is] a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century”. Galgut said while he started writing The Promise “in a far more traditional way”, an intervening job writing a film script helped him realise “that the narrator could behave like a camera, moving in close and then suddenly pulling far back, jumping from one character to another in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence, or following some side-line of action that has nothing to do with plot.

“In film, the point-of-view jumps and changes all the time – why not in a novel? I was very excited by the realisation, because it freed me from the strictures of tradition, and allowed me to give free rein to the cacophony of voices that seem always to be jostling inside, wanting to be heard,” said the author, who was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for The Good Doctor, and in 2010 with In a Strange Room.

The idea to set the novel around four funerals came after a “semi-drunken afternoon, listening to a friend describe the funerals of his parents, brother and sister,” he told the Guardian . “The dramatist in me saw the potential in staging a family history in four acts, each one centred on a burial. And if each act took place in a different decade, with a different president in power, I saw a way to show the nation behind the family, and give a taste of the time.”

Jasanoff said that Galgut’s “searching examination of family, place, and the dysfunctions that connect them” reminded the panel of Faulkner. Woolf, meanwhile, was evoked by his “deft inhabiting of different characters’ consciousnesses” .

“All this he does with a sensibility, artistry, and scope that are entirely his own,” said Jasanoff, who was joined on the judging panel by the writers Horatia Harrod and Chigozie Obioma, the actor Natascha McElhone and the writer and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. “As a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh, The Promise delivers. This is a book about legacies, those we inherit and those we leave, and in awarding it this year’s Booker prize we hope it will resonate with readers in decades to come.”

While the judges were unanimous in their decision to award the Booker to Galgut, Jasanoff said that they had “a lot of admiration” for the other five novels on the shortlist: debut American novelist Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, British-Somali author Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men, American Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, Sri Lankan Tamil novelist Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, and American novelist Richard Powers’s Bewilderment. “These were books that we really believe in and that we believe deserve their place on the shortlist,” said Jasanoff. “We definitely gave them all a good examination.”

Bea Carvalho, head of fiction at Waterstones, said: “We are thrilled that Damon Galgut has won this year’s Booker Prize. The Promise is fiction at its most powerful and affecting – it is a true literary masterpiece by an author of immense skill which is destined to become a modern classic. We are delighted that this very well deserved win will introduce many more readers to this hugely important work of fiction, and Galgut’s wonderful writing in general.”

Last year, the Booker prize was won by the Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart for his first novel, Shuggie Bain, based on Stuart’s own experiences of growing up in poverty in 1980s Glasgow.

The Promise by Damon Galgut is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com . Delivery charges may apply

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