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Novel set in SOUTH AFRICA

9th March 2023

The Promise by Damon Galgut, novel set in South Africa (Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban).

Novel set in SOUTH AFRICA

The death of Rachel Swart hurls the world into a flat spin for her young daughter. Amor’s father, older siblings and the rest of the household seem equally unable to cope. But there are practical arrangements to be made for the funeral, religious observances to be kept and appearances to be upheld. Somehow they get through it. During her illness, Rachel’s husband, Manie, had made her a promise that he later finds he is unable to keep, providing both the title of the book and the moral dilemma that haunts the family throughout.

In the years that follow, the lives of the family members gradually diverge and change but major family events bring them crashing back into each other’s orbit. The Promise takes place against a background of political and social change over forty years of South Africa’s turbulent history, from post-colonial times to Nelson Mandela’s freedom and presidency and the subsequent tribulations of the Rainbow Nation. The novel explores intimate themes of love, loss and death from the perspective of the Afrikaner Swart family and the ways in which they, and their black servants, are affected by social change.

The setting for The Promise is a rural farmstead near Pretoria, which is has been the family home for several generations. The Swart family manage the property, though it is farmed, and the household kept together, by their black servants. The author describes the arid landscape, where water shortages can mean life or death. The young Amor has already survived being struck by lightning when the account begins and the unpredictable availability of electricity is another factor: they can’t get it when they need it, yet suddenly it will strike and possibly kill, when the next storm rolls through. The Swart family are dependent on the land, yet few of them are close to it, and the degree of closeness is paralleled by their relationships with their black neighbours.

The Rainbow Nation of post-apartheid South Africa represents many facets of human life; people separated by skin colour and religious beliefs yet joined by a common struggle to tame the land. Religion proves to be a theme, with plenty of scope for anguish and soul-searching as far as the characters are concerned, and often humorous moments for the reader.

The  writing leaps from being a third-person description to a first-person narrative that reveals the innermost thoughts of the characters, and there are no speech marks or indications of whether someone is speaking aloud or thinking to themselves. This is at first a bit confusing but it’s not too hard to adapt to the style and it has the bonus of providing some very funny moments – did he really say that out loud? There is no single narrator: each of the four sections is named after a character,  but that’s not because it is told from their perspective alone.

This is definitely a book where the reviewer has to be careful not to give too much away and I’d caution anyone intending to read The Promise not to read other reviews before starting. Much of the reward for reading the book lies in the author’s carefully planned structure and the revelations that arise as the story unwinds. Even the names of the characters, their ethnicity and beliefs only become apparent as we get to know them – much like real life. Nothing can be taken for granted, because as the characters develop their positions and attitudes shift and the reader in turn constantly has to re-evaluate.

The Promise is a truly memorable book and one that will bear re-reading, perhaps more than once.

Sue for the TripFiction Team

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