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The Promise

by Damon Galgut

The Promise is 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.

Damon Galgut’s The Promise is about an unfulfilled but promising life and about the repeatedly broken promises by a white family to a black household worker. With unostentatious virtuosity Galgut – one of the world’s great writers – enters the minds of all his characters, rich or poor, white or black, male or female, even the thoughts of a homeless man beset by visions. The language has a Flaubertian clarity and the intimate knowledge of the family is matched by an authoritative understanding of South Africa’s complex history. – Edmund White

The Promise is a gorgeous and pleasurable novel, with an imaginative heft to match Galgut’s fellow South African writers Gordimer, Coetzee and Brink. It’s richly evocative of the land and its people, and reports on a new South Africa without fake moralising; it made me laugh, too. – Tessa Hadley, author of The Past

Galgut’s central interest has always been human nature and in The Promise he explores how land affects nation building, citizenship and identity formation – Business Day

To praise the novel in its particulars – for its seriousness; for its balance of formal freedom and elegance; for its humour, its precision, its human truth – seems inadequate and partial. Simply: you must read it. – Harper’s Magazine

Watch Marc Gevisser in conversation with Damon Galgut here – hosted by The Reading List


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