The Promise

Damon Galgut

Vintage, £16.99

Review by Nick Major

Reading a Damon Galgut novel is no light-hearted endeavour. Like his South African compatriot JM Coetzee, Galgut confronts the darkness at the heart of humanity. His 1995 novel The Quarry is about a man who murders a priest and assumes the dead man’s identity. Even the humour is dark: one of the imposter’s first tasks is to conduct a funeral service for a recently murdered man. Galgut’s latest novel, The Promise, is structured around the deaths of four members of the Swart family, farm-owners in Pretoria and descendants of white settlers: Rachel, the mother, Herman, the father, Astrid, one of the daughters, and Anton, the son. Amor, the youngest daughter, is not given her own section, but is integral to the story.

Of the deceased, only Rachel has any redeeming features. Before she dies, she makes Herman promise to give Salome, their black maid, the property rights to her house. It is 1986 and South Africa is still under apartheid, so this is an unusual decision. Rachel’s motives are unclear: she’s dead before the novel begins. But, much of her section concerns her late-life return to Judaism. The intimation – not guessed at by any of the family – is that the religion of her birth might have given her some sympathy with a dispossessed people. There is that, and the fact that Salome nursed Rachel whilst she was dying of a chronic illness.

Herman is a devout Christian, and resents the consequences of his wife’s religion: "All I want is to lie next to my wife for eternity. Is that so much to ask?" Despite his protestations, Rachel is not buried in the family plot – appropriated land, presumably. Instead, she is buried in a Jewish cemetery. What Herman can do, in the spiteful way typical of his character, is to deny Salome her house. Unfortunately, for him, Amor overheard Herman make the promise, and its unfulfilment – as well as the claustrophobic, closed, racism of her family – persuades Amor to flee home at the first opportunity.

HeraldScotland: Author Damon Galgut. Photo by Marthinus BassonAuthor Damon Galgut. Photo by Marthinus Basson

One might conclude from reading The Promise that Galgut is a little obsessed with death. But a close relationship with mortality often makes for a good writer. Norman Mailer, for instance, actively sought out a proximity to death, believing it to be a galvanising force. Galgut was introduced to his own mortality early on in life. He was diagnosed with cancer as a child, and bed-bound for a long time, something that was a formative experience. He was precocious in other ways. He published his first novel, A Sinless Season, in 1984, when he was just 17.

His years of experience at the desk have been useful. There is no surprise to learn that his novel The Good Doctor was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2003. He is an extremely skilled and subtle stylist. In The Promise, his style is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. The narrative eye moves from one perspective to another, dipping in and out of characters’ minds. There are the occasional quirks, such as when he directly addresses the reader. Near the end, for example, we learn more about Salome’s family home: "…and if Salome’s home hasn’t been mentioned before it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know."

Yes, it’s a rude presumption. I, for one, did wonder when the narrator was going to turn to Salome. Perhaps it is Galgut’s attempt to remind us that, yes, the bulk of characters are unpleasant people, but in judging them we might sometimes forget our own unconscious prejudices. Galgut has always been a politically-engaged writer. The Promise is set over 30 years and South African politics, if not always directly addressed, are continually murmuring in the background. At the beginning, Anton is in the army, and – shockingly – thinks almost nothing of killing an innocent black woman. For Astrid, post-apartheid South Africa seems much the same as before, "except it was nicer because there was forgiveness and no more boycotts". Despite Astrid’s obtuseness, there is some truth to this. The end of apartheid wasn’t the end of racial inequality. The Swarts, Amor aside, clearly don’t care about the liberation of black people. They are too self-interested. When Astrid has the opportunity to attend the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, all she takes from it is that Mbeki might find her attractive.

Apart from sex, for the Swarts "money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate … the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough". Herman is the keeper of the family’s wealth. Part of his fortune is derived from his reptile park: literally, a nest of vipers. Herman’s demise comes about when he gets too close to a deadly snake, under the impression that God will protect him; for all his religiosity, he clearly hasn’t read Genesis.

Rereading The Promise, one realises that Galgut has a macabre sense of humour. There is a wonderful, gruesome scene where Herman’s sister becomes paranoid that her brother is not in his coffin. In the hearse, she makes the funeral director break open the lid so she can check for herself. When she looks in, she’s "unhappy with the way her brother looks". Well, death has a tendency to change the living.

If the general atmosphere of this novel is dispiriting, the last few pages do emit some light and hope. Unfortunately, it unveils the novel’s main, but not ruinous, flaw. The story is shaped in such a way as to suggest there is some natural justice in the world. In spite of humanity’s cruelty, there will be some saving grace in the end. Any careful reader will see where this story is going from a long way off. One comes to the end and feels that perhaps Galgut couldn’t take any more of his own gloom. Well, I could have taken a good dose more. That’s a compliment, for it takes some brilliance to write a depressing and yet highly enjoyable and arresting novel like this one.