Thursday, January 5, 2023

Review: The Promise, by Damon Galgut


The Promise, by Damon Galgut. Published 2021 by Europa Editions. Winner of the 2021 Booker prize.

I've been a fan of Damon Galgut's for a while; a look at my "Reviews by Author" tab will yield at least one review. I read In a Strange Room and Arctic Summer and admired them both. I picked up The Promise as soon as it came out and was delighted when it won the Booker Prize for 2021.

Here he tells the story of the Swart family- mother Rachel, father Manie and their children Astrid, Anton and Amor. The book opens with Rachel's funeral and a promise she made to Salome, the family's maid for years, to give Salome the family's home. It's made in a very casual Howards End fashion, verbally and with no legal weight, just the weight of intention. Will the promise ever be fulfilled, and will it even matter?

Tragedy befalls two of the Swart children and by the end only one is left standing and it will be up to that person to decide the first question, and up to history to decide the second.

I enjoyed the book. It is dark, and there's not much light at the end. Galgut writes the book with a mix of emphasis on voice and plot. For a book that often felt moody and meandering a lot happens. Perspectives shift quickly and time moves around in funny ways. Each chapter is ostensibly devoted to a different character but it really comes back to Amor and Anton and their rocky and hard-to-pin-down connection. 

When I think on it after a few days, I think I found the premise unconvincing and arbitrary, and the fact that we never see Rachel and Salome's relationship happen in real time makes it seem that much more remote. We get a better sense of Amor's connection with Salome but that comes towards the end so we have to take a lot on faith. The book opens with Rachel's death and everyone is so distracted by Rachel's retrenchment into her Jewish faith that her promise to Salome is treated as something beneath their notice. And Rachel's wishes are treated with a mixture of contempt and bewilderment on the whole so this one is no different.

That siad, it's a book I'd definitely recommend to the literary fiction reader. It's tough and merciless at times and hopelessly heartbreaking at others. Galgut deserved his prize.

I did not receive this book for review.

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