The Promise by Damon Galgut: Is the Booker calling for the South African great?

Story of a family’s moral failings serves as an allegory for a nation’s wider weaknesses

Damon Galgut. Photograph: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty

Damon Galgut. Photograph: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty

Damon Galgut’s electrifying new novel tracks the travails of the Swart family – “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans” – over the span of three decades. 

The story opens in 1986 with Rachel, the matriarch, dying of cancer at 40. On her deathbed she has her husband, Manie, promise to give their housekeeper, Salome, ownership of the small house she occupies on the family farm outside Pretoria. The conversation is overhead by their youngest daughter Amor, who spends the rest of the book trying to have her mother’s dying wish honoured. She is refused first by her father, partly under the pretence that under apartheid, Salome can’t own property, then her siblings, even once it becomes legally possible to transfer the deeds.

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