THE PLOT: ‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut is a literary novel about a white South-African family. It opens with the youngest daughter, Amor, who overhears her father promise to give their black maid, Salome, a house. The rest of the novel spans forty years – through the end of Apartheid, truth and reconciliation and the AIDS epidemic – as Amor seeks to fulfil the promise. With no speechmarks and a rapidly moving narrator who can enter the minds of the characters, this novel is also about Amor’s siblings, growing up and the promise of youth.
RATING: Although this novel won the 2021 Booker Prize, it’s three and a half stars from me. It’s very well-written with lots of allegory and atmosphere but I didn’t enjoy the reading experience. Firstly, there are no speechmarks so it takes ages to work out if someone’s talking (I like the theme of the demarcation between speech and thought but I also like to be practical). Secondly, there are no scenes or chapters – it’s all one continuous stream of consciousness so there aren’t natural breaks. This means every time you pick it up it takes a while to get back into and it’s easiest to read each of the four parts (c.70 pages) in one go. Finally, it’s a slow burn because it’s focussed on the interior lives of the characters so there are very few external plot points to keep driving the narrative forward.
GOOD BITS: The writing style is very accomplished, with lots of allegory and layers of meaning. The unusual style builds a lot of tension, mystery and atmosphere – in part because I didn’t know what was going on at first. This was perfect for a buddy read as there was lots to decipher and discuss – many of us could see this book being studied in English Literature classes. In particular, we wondered if the whole novel was a metaphor for South Africa and giving the land back to the black inhabitants. Indeed, there seems to be an interesting theme about the promise of youth for Amor, her siblings and the country as their lives don’t live up to their dreams or expectations.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The rapid changes in point of view (usually within one page) in a stream of consciousness format makes the whole book feel very close and interior and suffocating, and I wanted more external plot to sustain the narrative. I could feel myself physically perk up when something happened and then slump back into trudging through the minds of the characters. Because there weren’t enough external plot points acting as a barrier to Amor’s goal to fulfil the promise, I felt she became a weak, unsympathetic character who was lacking in agency. She could’ve done more to achieve her goal in the second half of the book so I stopped caring about the character.
OVERALL: I’m going to be brutal… in my heart, I think I don’t like this book because it feels like a lame apology from a white South African. I just want to scream ‘give Salome her house’ aka ‘where’s the black South African story? Make space for Salome’s story!’ The whole book is about the superficial agonies of the white South African family who can’t fulfil their promise to a black maid and I think I’d prefer to read about the black maid’s life. It’s the one POV we never get. Even though this is deliberate and you only get glimpses of the history of South Africa and it’s stylistically very clever, it frustrates me that there’s a more interesting story hiding behind this one. I want to ask the writer why he couldn’t just give Salome her f***ing house.
However, I read this book with three other bookstagrammers who all enjoyed it more than me, so if you like complex, literary novels this may suit you. I’d recommend it to fans of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce and ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride.