2021 Booker Prize Winner
When South African writer and playwright Damon Galgut was just six-years-old, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Bedridden, he was nursed back to health by his family. To keep him occupied, they read him stories and books. The world of printed text fascinated him and it would be his gateway to a prolific career. At the age of seventeen, he already managed to achieve a feat many of his peers were unable to do so: publishing his first novel. It opened more gates for the young writer whose works were critically praised. He kept earning accolades for his works, albeit at a local level. He made his first global breakthrough in 2003 when his novel The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the prestigious literary award, Booker Prize. He would earn a second shortlisting in 2010 with In a Strange Room.
As a writer, his greatest breakthrough finally came in 2021, when his latest novel, The Promise, won him the elusive Booker Prize for Fiction. It was a landmark moment for Galgut as it came after being shortlisted for the third time; of the six shortlisted writers, he had received the most shortlisting. But then again, as they say, the third time’s a charm. With this amazing feat, he became just the third South African writer to win the prestigious literary award, joining the elite company of Nadine Gordimer (The Conservationist, 1974) and J.M. Coetzee (Life & Times of Michael K, 1983 and Disgrace, 1999). It was not a shabby group to be part of; Gordimer and Coetzee are, after all, Nobel Laureates in Literature.
Galgut’s ninth novel, and his first in seven years, The Promise charts the history of an Afrikaner family, the Swarts. The family live on a farm just outside of Pretoria and was comprised of five members, with Manie as the patriarch, and Rachel the matriarch. The couple has three children – Anton, Astrid, and Amor. The family earns its living from the farm and from the main family business, a reptile park. “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 sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in.”
“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.”~ Damon Galgut, The Promise
The novel commenced in 1986, during the twilight years of the Apartheid. It is divided into four distinct parts, with each chapter concerned with the funeral of a family member. The first funeral involves the family matriarch. Rachel has been battling cancer and her only reprieve was Salome, their black maid who served her faithfully and was helping nurse her back to health. Salome and her family occupy a ramshackle cabin annexed to the Swart’s farm. On her deathbed, Rachel requested that her husband give the ownership of the property to Salome. Manie promised to do as his wife wished; this was the titular promise. However, the Apartheid was still in full force and Black people are barred from owning properties in white spaces. The youngest daughter, Amor, who was thirteen at the time, overheard this promise. It was this promise that would form the moral backbone of the story.
A has decade passed but Manie did not make good on his promise. Meanwhile, his relationship with his son soured, and an estrangement ensued. Anton, a former soldier for the pro-Apartheid government, was haunted by his killing of a black mother. He deserted the army but has not been home for nine years. Astrid, the middle child, married Dean and was now a mother to seven-year-old twins Neil and Jessica. She was the only one bridging the gaps between the members of the family. Amor, on the other hand, was currently residing in London. The three children’s fates converged following the death of their father after a fatal snakebite. The family home was inherited by Anton, being the eldest. Salome, however, has not been given her due but Anton reassured Amor that he will follow through with their parents’ promise. With this, Amor decided to move to Durban and train as a nurse.
As time passes by, will the Swarts be able to fulfill the promise they made? In the Swarts, we see the quintessence of a dysfunctional family. None of the members, save perhaps Rachel and Amor, was particularly likable. They are a collection of broken pieces which share very few similarities to nothing at all. There seem to be no connections between the members of the family; they were a collective of strangers constantly brought together by destiny and circumstances The only indelible link between them was the farm and blood. With the death of the matriarch, the crevasses that separated them started to widen. No family is perfect but will there be redemption?
Their inability to make good of their promise seems to stem from their indulgent and decadent lifestyle. They were self-consumed and self-centered. They were more concerned with their personal dramas. They, after all, grew up in an opulent background abound with privileges. Manie, for instance, was drawn towards the bottle. His alcoholism was one of the reasons for his estrangement from his family, with the greatest impact on his only son. Astrid found herself suffocated by her married life and has grown obnoxious. To break the routine, she sought other forms of pleasure as her husband turned his book. Her husband would be haunted by this after her secrets were revealed. The family also possessed a prejudiced view of the world and view themselves as superior, again, because of the privilege of growing up in a privileged white space. It was no surprise encountering instances of the family perpetrating casual racism.
“But in the meantime there is the body, the horrible meaty fact of it, the thing that reminds everyone, even people who didn’t care for the dead woman, and there are always a few of those, that one day they shall lie there too, just like her, emptied out of everything, merely a form, unable even to look at itself. And the mind recoiled from its absence, cannot think of itself not thinking, the coldest of voids.”~ Damon Galgut, The Promise
Amor was the story’s moral compass. Struck by lightning when she was younger, she grew aloof. Unlike her older siblings and her father, she wanted to see the promise be fulfilled. However, she was always shrugged off when she raises the subject. She raised it during their mother’s funeral but Manie ignored her and sent her away. She was given the same cold shoulder by Anton during their father’s funeral No longer able to tolerate her morally bankrupt family, she packed her bags and left for Durban where she trained and eventually worked as a nurse in the HIV ward. This sudden move baffled her siblings but Amor was adamant in her resolve of distancing herself from the family. She accepted neither monetary assistance nor contact from them.
The Promise, however, doesn’t reduce itself into a mere exploration of the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. As the story of the Swarts unspooled, it explored a plethora of subjects, both within and without the ambit of family life. Death and grief are leitmotifs but another prevalent subject was religion and spirituality, with its undercurrents flowing through each chapter. As the characters face moral challenges, they turned to religion; a rabbi, a pastor, a priest, and a yoga instructor played seminal roles in the life of the Swarts. But even in religion moral corruption abounds; Galgut portrayed religion as power-hungry, hypocritical, and overly judgemental. The novel also grappled with infidelities, murder, and homosexuality.
The story of the Swarts was juxtaposed with the contemporary history of South Africa. One of the novel’s greater accomplishments was the rich backdrop upon which the story was nestled on. Each funeral was predicated on a seminal point in contemporary South African history. The story commenced in the twilight years of the Apartheid, where Anton was one part of the pro-apartheid forces. Jubilation followed the end of the apartheid and South Africa’s subsequent victory during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. This was succeeded by the HIV/AIDS crisis during the reign of Thabo Mebki (2004), and the resignation of Jacob Zuma (2018). We see a nation in transition, from its dark past to the promise of a better nation. However, just like the promise made by the Swarts, the promise of a better tomorrow barely materialized as it was warped by ambition, greed, and corruption.
One facet of the story that stood out was Galgut’s impressive writing. The plot was non-linear but all of the story’s wonderful elements were carefully and masterfully woven together by Galgut’s adept writing. It was complemented by an omniscient narrator that loomed above the story. Flowing through consciousness, the narrative voice weaved in and out of different perspectives. There was a stream-of-consciousness quality to the perspective even though it oscillates between first, second, and third point-of-views. At some points, the narrator even addressed the readers directly. It could have been tedious but the transitions were smooth, further credit to Galgut’s rich prose and language.
“There’s a hot wind gusting now, and black clouds rolling in from the east. Thunder gargling away in the back throat of the sky. Time to get moving, and to use haste to cover what would otherwise crack the heart. Both women know they won’t see each other again. But why does it matter? They’re close, but not close. Joined but not joined. One of the strange, simple fusions that hold this country together. Sometimes only barely.”~ Damon Galgut, The Promise
Despite the novel’s strengths, there were blunders that weighed down on it. What was glaring was the lack of a solid and audible Black voice, save for a non-white murderous carjacker. While the titular promise concerned her, Salome was rendered voiceless throughout the story. The Swarts was an allegory of South Africa and their story was a microcosm for the nation’s troubled contemporary history. However, the representation came across as overdone. This can be gleaned from how the funerals were predicated on historical touchstones. The coincidences were too neat. Its weaknesses were redeemed by the powerful words of Salome’s son, Lukas at the end of the story. It summarily captured what the story was about.
Parts-family-saga, parts-literary fiction, parts-satire, The Promise offers an evocative reading journey. Through the story of the self-indulgent and selfish Swarts family, the contemporary history of South Africa was projected. In parallel lines, we see how two promises – that of a family to their maid, and that of a government to its people – were forgotten as the institutions that were supposed to honor them fell into dysfunctionality, moral corruption, and greed. The novel abounded with dark and bleak subjects, such as grief, and death, but it was accentuated with humor, albeit of satirical nature. Beyond its historical context and parallels, The Promise is a masterpiece of the narrative voice that situated the readers within the story. Galgut masterfully orchestrated the story with his deft and dexterous hands, fully engaging the reader from the onset. The winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, The Promise is a powerful, and scintillating read.
Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%
In the lead-up to the announcement 2021 Booker Prize, Damon Galgut’s The Promise was touted by many literary pundits as the potential winner for the annual literary award. Even among my fellow book blogger, I keep seeing it as a popular choice, even if it was against fellow literary powerhouse, Richard Powers. Coincidentally, it was the works of these two authors that I read last of the six 2021 Booker Prize-shortlisted works. I did enjoy Bewilderment, which made me look forward to The Promise. Both writers are new to me but I felt it in my guts that these two books, even though I haven’t read The Promise yet, will go head-to-head for the award. With this in mind, I embarked on another reading journey with Galgut’s latest work. With his third shortlisting, he was the most shortlisted writer among the six writers in this year’s shortlist.
I did have a bit of a challenge with the novel though. I liked how the prose flowed but somehow fell short of my expectations. I understand that a promise was made, hence, the title. However, something didn’t click for me and it is a mixture of many things – the promise being put into the backseat ahead of the Swart family’s story, or the dialogues lacking in quotation marks, or the lack of black voices. Despite this, I can see why it won the Booker Prize. It has that Booker Prize aura that reminded me of Coetzee’s Disgrace and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I originally gave the book a three-star rating in Goodreads but added one more after gaining a better understanding of the book and re-evaluating its elements.
Author: Damon Galgut
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 293
Genre: Literary Fiction
The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.
About the Author
Damon Galgut was born on November 12, 1963, in Pretoria, South Africa. His father was from a Jewish family while his mother converted to Judaism. He studied at Pretoria Boys High School where he was the head boy. He studied drama at the University of Cape Town. Galgut’s love for reading and books began at a young age. It was books that kept him company when he was bedridden with lymphoma.
When he was 17-years-old, Galgut published his debut novel, A Sinless Season (1982). His second book, Small Circle of Beings (1988), is a collection of short stories. His third book, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, (1991) won the 1992 Central News Agency Literary Award. His literary breakthrough came in 2003, with his fifth book, The Good Doctor. It won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Africa) and was also shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2005 International Dublin Literary Award. Galgut earned a second shortlisting for the Booker Prize with his 2010 novel, In a Strange Room. Arctic Summer (2014) won the 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize and the Folio Prize. In 2021, Galgut found himself on the Booker Prize shortlist for the third time. He finally won it with his latest novel, The Promise (2021). On the sly, Galgut is a playwright.
Galgut is a keen travelerand currently resides and works in Cape Town, South Africa.