The Promise – book review

The Promise, by Damon Galgut

Like I often say with the Booker – read the shortlist.

I didn’t find any joy in this novel. It is set in South Africa in the 1980s as apartheid falls apart, but we don’t venture out into the country much. The action, such as it is, concerns a white family who live on a farm. The characters are all unlikeable. The only one with any shred of decency is the youngest daughter, Amor, who cannot stand up for her beliefs and opts out, not only of the family but also, by being so damn wet, pretty much out of her own life as well. To call her uncharismatic is being kind. She is moderately interesting because she was struck by lightening as a child and lost a toe, but that’s about it. She’s absent for most of the book.

The point of Amor in the story is that she is the one that overhears her father promise her dying mother that the black housekeeper will be given the house (hovel) in which she lives. This titular promise should keep us in suspense but, because we never get any feel for the housekeeper as a person it’s not a particularly engaging plot. Yes, the South Africans treated their black workers disdainfully and it was appalling. So why not give the woman a voice? The other members of the family are all overtly racist and flat stereotypes–bored drunks, cheating housewives, irritating female relatives. There’s a bit of banter about a self-serving pastor no one likes and a predatory hippy yoga teacher. The blacks are either subservient, criminals or no-hopers.

The book is told by a narrator who seems to have a special relationship with the reader I didn’t understand. We jump between people’s viewpoints within paragraphs and occasionally the reader is directly addressed. Who by? Here’s an example, as the son is wanking in the bathroom: ‘Interesting how the self can be split into segments, orgasm and observation at the same time, the eye that watches the I. Neither is me, but both might be. Washes his hands afterwards in a renewed fog of fatigue and self-loathing, wishing he hadn’t done that. Wish I didn’t do that. But you did.’

I’m a bit affronted by this. You talking to me? Another time: ‘…she rattles around these million empty rooms, watching the plaster crack off the walls and the spiders spin webs in the corners. I mean, her, me, Desirée, can you imagine?’

The first person character feels like an editing mistake .‘Lukas takes the footpath to the Lombard house. Where I live. A crooked little building...Cross the threshold. Hello? Your own voice coming back at you.’ Who is the ‘I’ here? Who is ‘you’? I kept waiting for the secret reveal; other authors use this trick and spring a surprise narrator on you at the end (see Golden Hill and The Wish Child). I don’t want a narrator to mess with me like this.

Yes, there were some good scenes in this book, some sharp character descriptions and a bit of an insight into South Africa in transition, a hint of things to come. I can’t remember who raved about this book to me, I know it is a great favourite of many and obviously it is a great read as it won the Booker. So I’m probably mistaken to label it irritating and unjoyous. Let me know if I have it all wrong.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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