Book Group Report: The Promise by Damon Galgut

This was our pick from the final decade of the Big Jubilee Read, which we’ve worked through decade by decade of her late maj’s reign. In recent years, our book group has steered clear of most of the big prize-winning books–The Promise won the Booker in 2021–but we were all keen to read this one. The good thing is that everyone read it, and everyone enjoyed the writing but, and there is a but, it’s not exactly a happy book full of likeable characters–it’s rather depressing and there is little to actually like in any of them! My elevator pitch for it would be ‘Four Funerals and No Wedding!’

The Promise follows the Swart family across two generations – largely falling before and after apartheid was abolished, straddling the 1990s. The first section is simply titled ‘Ma’ and I expected to hear her story in her voice – but no – it begins with her youngest daughter Amor being collected from school by her aunt Tannie Marina. Ma has died and the Swarts are gathering for her funeral. The grown-up Swart children, Astrid and her family, Amor, their father Manie, Tannie Marina and Uncle Ockie are at the family homestead. They are just awaiting middle child Anton, the sort of black sheep of the family, en route from his army encampment. He arrives needing stitches – having had the family chauffeur drive through a township as a short cut home. It’s a particularly stressful time for Manie, as Ma, Rachel, had reembraced her Jewish faith before she died, and Manie, a strict believer in the church led by local pastor Dominee Alwyn Simmers, doesn’t hold with the way they do funerals, and you can sense it’s going to be hard for the older generation of Swarts and their hangers on to keep it together for the rabbi. Salome, their long-serving maid is specifically not invited.

…Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place, and changed into her chuch clothes, which she would have worn to the service, a dark dress, patched and darned, and a black shawl and her only good pair of shoes, and a handbag and hat, and like that she sites out in front of her house, sorry, the Lombard place, on a second-hand armchair from which the stuffing is bursting out, and says a prayer for Rachel.

Salome’s home, the Lombard house, on a corner of the Swart property near Dominee Simmers’s church is the subject of ‘the promise’ of the novel’s title. Amor had witnessed a conversation between her Ma and Pa in which Ma urged Pa to promise to give the house to Salome, something which hasn’t happened – yet? Amor had told Lukas, Salome’s son who was then her playmate, who told Anton who now winds up Pa with the story at the wake, and Anton and Simmers have a big falling out. Anton goes AWOL rather than return to the army, and will be saved by the changes in government, becoming the prodigal in coming years.

Will Salome ever get the house she was promised – we will find out by the end of the novel, but first there are more funerals.

One of the ways that Manie makes a living is through co-owning a reptile house called Scaly City! He will soon meet his end by a cobra bite due to a stupid belief that God would protect him. His last will and testament has bite too – the children will share their inheritance with the church, and have the right to live at the homestead for as long as they want – but the church’ll get that too afterwards. As for the snake, Astrid and her family are visiting Scaly City…

The snake that bit Manie is a young female of the species and at this moment she is lying on display in her tank at the reptile park. Look at the fat scaly awfulness of her, bulging with poison, a hard sheath full of grumous matter, […]

Why is it still alive? Astrid wants to know. […]

Bruce Geldenhuys, who owned Scaly City with Manie, is showing them around. He puffs ruefully and draws his eyebrows together and says, Well, it’s a snake.

A snake that killed somebody, Astrid says. Don’t dogs get put down if they do that?

You’ll notice from that quote above that Galgut doesn’t use speech marks, but does use a capital letter to signal a speech in the middle of a sentence. You may not like that, but I found it quite clear to distinguish when someone was speaking, and when the voice of the narrator is addressing the reader directly. This style of writing in the present tense worked very well for me.

The next sections follow two more deaths in the family. Each a tragic loss, but I’m not going to say any more. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and managed to find some bits of dark humour, viz the snake above. I also didn’t think that some of the characters were as unlikeable as most of the other members of our book group did; they did have good moments, but Manie and the manipulative pastor were particularly objectionable, and we never really got to know Rachel. Our group all found the writing compelling; there is no unnecessary text and it flows so well. Galgut is able to both comment and compare and contrast the politics and religion in this cross-generational tale of a white South African family. These aspects drove our book group discussions as much as our character analysis. An excellent book group choice indeed.

Source: Own copy. Vintage paperback, 293 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

5 thoughts on “Book Group Report: The Promise by Damon Galgut

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Well, thanks to a fairly close reading of your review, particularly the quotes,.Annabel, I now have two new words to add to my wordhoard – grumous and grume, the latter meaning a blood clot. And what a dark tale this is, almost claustrophobic, perhaps unsurprising given the family name Swart which, I guess, in Dutch must mean ‘dark, swarthy, black’. (Just checked, and yes, it does!)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Grumous sounds like a word from Jabberwocky, doesn’t it? I’m glad you looked it up for us, I was equating it to digestive chyme which is pulpy – and yes – clot-like.

      • Calmgrove says:

        Well, now I’ve had to look up “chyme” and – *yeugh* – almost as bad as “grume”. Anyway, words to store up for a Scrabble tournament, that’s for sure!

  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    I read your review with great interest. I’m a big fan of Galgut’s work and thought The Promise was an absolute masterpiece, for many of the reasons you point out: the dark humor (I actually found quite a bit in the novel); the flow of the plot and the compelling style. I agree with you that it wasn’t a happy story and that many of the characters were unlikeable but, well, that was the time & the place, n’est-ce pas?

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