Sins of Omission: Damon Galgut’s The Promise (South Africa)

Damon Galgut’s The Promise, Chatto & Windus 2021

First line: The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened.

What’s this, you cry? A hefty Booker Prize winner infiltrating the pages of an international crime fiction blog? You betcha! Because even if The Promise is literary with a capital ‘L’ and requires a tiny bit of readerly patience at the start, it’s packed to the gills with crime and will soon have you hooked.

The novel opens in 1986 South Africa with a death and a promise. Just before dying of cancer at the family farm outside Pretoria, Rachel Swart makes her husband promise that Salome, the Black woman who has worked faithfully for the Swarts her entire life, will be gifted the house she lives in. Manie agrees, then conveniently ‘forgets’ he ever did such a thing. But youngest daughter Amor overheard the promise being made, and that act of witnessing sets off a chain of events down the years – in four novel parts spaced roughly a decade apart.

Set against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, the entire novel is laced with crime: the crime of apartheid itself and of those who collude in it, the crime of breaking a deathbed promise that might right some of its wrongs, and the criminality that springs up in societies riven with inequality. Oh yes, and there are two murders, which mirror one another in their terrible casualness.

And then there is the writing, sweeping and luminous, that takes us into the minds of the whole family and the complex community around them.

He did promise. I heard him.
He promised Ma he would give Salome her house.

Her little face is lit from within by its sureness.

Amor, he says gently.

What?

Salome can't own the house.
Even if Pa wanted to, he can't give it to her.

Why not? she says, puzzled.

Because, he says. It's against the law.

The law? Why?

You are not serious. 
But then he looks at her and sees how serious she is.
Oh, dear me, he says. 
Do you have no idea what country you're living in?

So run, don’t walk – get yourself a copy of this incredible novel. There’s further info and an audio extract from The Promise over at the Booker Prize website.

4 thoughts on “Sins of Omission: Damon Galgut’s The Promise (South Africa)

  1. It sounds like a rich, layered story, Mrs. P.! And I do really like the South African setting. I like the way some of the larger events in the country are seen through the eyes of people who live there, too. I have to admit, I have a strong – very strong – dislike of the use of the present tense in stories. Rarely do I enjoy a story that’s written that way. That said, the story itself sounds powerful, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Oh how interesting, Margot! Why don’t you like the use of the present tense in stories? I know what you mean though, there are certain narrative modes that I tend to avoid as well…

      This novel has really stayed with me, and I have to say that I was hooked almost immediately. It felt a bit like literary catnip – once you’d started that was it. Phone off the hook, nest on the sofa, occasional breaks only for a fresh cup of tea. I could really see why it was a Booker winner, but also thought it was impressively accessible too.

      Anyhow, that’s my pitch! 🙂

      • It’s a bit difficult to say exactly why the use of the present tense puts me off, Mrs. P. I think I just feel pulled out of the story, as I find it jarring. In any case, the book sounds excellent, and your pitch is brilliant!

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