Hailed as “in every way equal to J.M. Coetzee” by Rian Malan, Damon Galgut is an author I was thrilled to see on the Booker longlist. Shortlisted twice, Galgut’s work is a proven favorite among the Booker judges, and The Promise (Europa Editions 2021) very well could win it for him. In the spirit of full disclosure, South African literature has always held a special place for me and when the author of My Traitor’s Heart references the author of one of my most favorite books (Disgrace), I’m apt to pay it a bit more attention.
With echoes of my beloved Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee, The Promise quickly went to the head of my Booker list. The “white voice” in the time of apartheid is always going to recall these two prominent South African authors in my mind. What I didn’t expect, was the echo of William Faulkner. There’s a lot of Faulknerian aspects to the novel – the first section in particular murmurs reminders of As I Lay Dying – one scene seems a clear nod to the Southern writer when Anton, much like Vardaman, believes he has killed his mother. Anton doesn’t believe his mother is a fish, but he does believe she was at the end of the barrel when he pulled the trigger. She wasn’t – he didn’t kill his mother – but that early introduction to Anton defines the man he becomes in the decades that follow.
The novel is told in four sections: Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. Amor does not have a section, yet she is the glue that holds the novel together and the lightening that illuminates in the dark. She’s a young girl when her mother dies, and she begins menstruating at the funeral. As her mother was dying, she overheard her mother make her father promise something. That promise carves a wedge between her and her father, and later between her and her siblings.
The novel begins during the mid-1980s, during apartheid. The second section jumps forward to 1995, after the end of apartheid when the promise could finally have been realized had Amor’s siblings wanted to honor it. The novel jumps forward again, to Mbeki’s second inauguration in 2004 and Astrid’s second marriage. Again, the promise could have realized. But it wasn’t. The novel jumps forward yet again and once more, Amor is set on ensuring the promise is finally kept. She is firmly middle aged by this point, and her cycles have ceased. The novel comes full circle with a bolt of lightning, a death bed promise, a tortured history of colonization and racism, and the land she called home but couldn’t claim.
Read this book.