A powerful, challenging family drama, the 2021 Booker Prize winning The Promise is a visceral menace of a novel as the Swarts, an Afrikaans family, is torn apart by death and an unmet promise.
On her deathbed, dying young from cancer, Rachel Swart elicits a promise from husband, Manie. The small house on their Pretorian farm was to be gifted to long-time domestic servant, Salome. He distractedly agrees. Unbeknown to either of them, youngest daughter Amor overhears the promise. In a country emerging from apartheid and minority rule, what evolves is a family saga spread over 40 years mirroring a country full of resentment, anger, fear – and hope. As the family unit disintegrates, so the promise remains unfulfilled as Manie choses to ignore/deny his wife’s wishes.
Seen as an unsentimental allegory to post-apartheid South Africa, The Promise looks to the moral question of the support for majority black rule and expected renewal. It’s slow in coming.
Disparate, the Swarts are united by funerals – but not grief – after the death of Rachel. Having refound her Jewish faith on her deathbed having previously married into a family of Dutch Reform Calvinists, her death and funeral arrangements are not easily handled by the fundamentalist Swarts. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging opening of Galgut’s novel as opposing family members clash and compromise, leaving seething anger and disappointment. It sets the scene for the disatisfaction and unfulfillment that is to pervade the underlying narrative of the novel.
The three teenage children, Anton (he arrives late to the funeral due to military service), Astrid and Amor (part-time narrator and moral compass of the novel) are disconnected even at this early stage and, by the second of four parts within The Promise, have all flown the coup.
Menace continually bubbles under the surface as the dwindling family meet approximately every decade for a family funeral. Each time it is more and more difficult for Amor to be contacted as she distances herself physically and emotionally from the farm and her siblings (at one point she has left to live in London leaving no contact details). It is she who constantly raises the issue of the promise. But her requests fall on fallow ground as a bitter Anton, once the golden boy, lives in the shadow of unfulfilled potential (and the Church built on part of the farm as bequeathed by the father) and Astrid comes to terms with loss of youth, looks and two failed marriages.
The Promise is a dramatic tale and provides an engrossing insight into a time and place of great flux. It is a ‘semi-detached’ telling, an odd hybrid as Amor is – and then isn’t – the narrator. The result is an ebb and flow of emotional involvement but which nevertheless draws the reader in.