The Promise follows a white South African family through decades of loss and disappointment. Three children and a father are left behind when the matriarch of the family dies at the age of 40 at the start of the novel. Amor, the youngest daughter, overhears a promise her father makes to her mother: he will give their faithful housekeeper Salome (a Black woman) a small house that is located on the family’s farm. Amor is the only witness to this and her father denies ever making the promise.
What Amor doesn’t realise at the time is that Salome would not have been able to own property even if her father had kept his promise. In The Promise, apartheid is like a play where the set is made up of shadows and smoke. It permeates everything but doesn’t fully materialised into view. I think this is very clever of Galgut; it would be very difficult to handle the novel otherwise because the family dynamics would likely fade into thin air against something so momentous for the country and for much of the world. So The Promise folds apartheid into the story from a very specific point of view and in no way pretends to present a comprehensive account of it. It presents history in the way that the people on the wrong side of it would experience it – the family mostly looks at the changes taking over the country with distaste and impatience.
Though the plot of the novel is eventful enough and engaging, the real star is Galgut’s style. His brand of stream of consciousness is lyric but also gritty, and at times jumps from character to character like a hummingbird on speed. It’s exhilarating. He is not afraid to get profound, or scatological, or even openly uninterested in his own characters, at which point he unceremoniously changes the focus. You are not safe either – at times he has a go at the reader as well. I think most stream of consciousness ends up being quite funny because we get characters’ thoughts unfiltered which often results in savage observations of other people or the sobering reality of how little people care about others and their pain. We are all self-obsessed to some degree and would never either admit or realise it, but in stream of consciousness, characters have no choice but to bare their grimy little souls. We are dealing with dubious people here (at best) and both we and the narrator know it, no need to make a fuss about it.
In terms of themes, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to the meaning of family, selfishness, community and self-actualization. If we are being brutally honest, most of us don’t amount to much in our lives, which for some is a non-issue, and for some, a tragedy. What does ‘amounting to something’ even mean? The book doesn’t answer this but it’s interesting to see how the characters’ lives unfold and how some of them deal with failure or mediocrity.
Another ‘theme’ I wasn’t expecting to see much of pops up quite often: religion, spirituality and mysticism. I enjoyed Galgut’s approach very much – to the narrator these are merely hobby-like, events, habits. No great meaning is actually attributed to or gained from religion in the characters’ lives. The clergy and an esoteric guru come off as what most of them are – just people doing their jobs, performing their role sometimes faithlessly, and taking advantage of their followers in one way or another. There is no moral admonishing of this either, it’s just the way things are and as in real life, they are left to their own devices to continue the charade. The last book I read that deals with religion in any extensive way was Transcendent Kingdom. I am a fan of the book but ultimately thought it was too forgiving of organised religion and gave it too much meaning. I like how The Promise doesn’t take it too seriously and mysticism is on equal par with the Abrahamic religions in terms of legitimacy, as it should be.
Finally, what also stood out to me in the book was Amor. [SPOILER COMING UP, SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH] I think she was supposed to be the only good person in the family and had some cliché characteristics associated with ‘goodness’: she is a non-hectoring vegan nurse. But. I thought her efforts to make good on her father’s promise were feeble at best, and at the risk of sounding overly cynical, performative and self-congratulatory. She could have been giving Salome money all along, but swoops in with a handout when the woman is possibly too old to enjoy it. Although Salome’s son brings Amor down from her high horse, she soon returns to the rarefied air of her benevolence. Her brother remarks at one point that there is “no end to her martyrdom” and I am inclined to agree.
The Promise is so good that even being annoyed at Amor was enjoyable, and such a contrast to the compassion I felt for her in the first section of the novel when she was a child losing her mother. The writing is fun and original, the story is sad but captures the absurdity of being human and trying to retain any measure of dignity. I still have four books to go from the Booker shortlist but I think it’s looking good for The Promise.