Set in South Africa, THE PROMISE is the portrait of a white family in post-apartheid South Africa. It follows three siblings – Anton, Astrid, and Amor Swart – through the changes in their lives from the 1970s to the present, as the structures of both their family and their country dramatically change.
Or do they? This is one of the thinking points of the book. Apartheid ends, but the bias remains. Family members disperse and reunite, only to disperse again. Lives show signs of growth, then pause. Sound futile? Well, it is. But at the hands of as accomplished a writer as Damon Galgut, it takes on intrigue.
For one thing, I cared about these characters. Despite the similarity of their A-names, Anton, Astrid, and Amor each have a very different and touching story. They might be unlikeable at times, but don’t we all occasionally make bad choices? I related to the sheer humanness of these characters.
For another, I was entranced by the writing. The prose is succinct and exquisite, the thoughts elegantly expressed. Odd elements are introduced to move the story from one place to another, but each has a purpose.
And then, there’s the eponymous ‘promise’. Mind you, the concept has three meanings here. First, there is a promise made to the longtime Black caretaker of the Swart family that she would be given the small house she has rented for so many years on their property. Second, there is the promise of the lives of each of the siblings. And finally, there is the promise of a post-apartheid world.
Critics of the print version cite the lack of punctuation and traditional novel structure. Listening to the audiobook, I was oblivious of these things. The narrator was wonderful, each story easy enough to follow.
Did I get all of the novel’s meaning? Not being a scholar on South Africa, I doubt it. Was this novel dark? Absolutely.
And still, I understand why it just won the 2021 Booker Award.