This year an idiosyncratic shortlist has produced a clear and unsurprising winner. With an impressive backlist and two former shortlistings, Damon Galgut is a major figure in world literature and a vital, nuanced chronicler of the deep hurts of South Africa, past and present.
The Promise feels like the book Galgut was born to write. Opening in 1986 during apartheid, it focuses on wealthy Afrikaners, the ironically named Swarts (Afrikaans for “black”), a toxic family in a toxic society. The novel is divided into four sections, each built around an untimely and usually violent death. In the first section, a deathbed promise is made to give a house on the Swart farm to the black servant, Salome. As Nelson Mandela moves “from a cell to a throne” and society is transformed over the following decades, the promise goes unfulfilled; the family is tested by history, but they fail on every count. The youngest daughter Amor, 13 when the book opens and with “no idea what country she’s living in”, is the family’s conscience, but for most of the novel absents herself from her awful relatives. In her final meeting with Salome’s son, he resists her hopes of redemption and forgiveness – of a happy ending. “Everything you have, white lady, is already mine. I don’t have to ask.”
With his roaming interior voice, Galgut draws on Woolf and especially Faulkner; there are parallels too with Forster’s Howards End, another story of botched inheritance and a moribund ruling class. But what makes this singular novel so unusual is the contrast between the formal structure, with its tight symbolic patterning, and the unstable, deeply porous narrative voice. The narration travels from mind to mind, encompassing dreams and ghosts and inhabiting minor characters, from vulnerable people to the grotesque. The voice is satirical, melodramatic and intimate by turns; it backtracks and digresses, contradicts itself with a shrug. The reader is often addressed directly, assumed to be a fellow Afrikaner, dragged into uneasy complicity with the raging self-pity and unreflecting racism of the Swart clan. The perspective we don’t get is Salome’s – itself a dramatisation of the myopia of racism.
Galgut’s alertness to complexity and contradiction, to the endlessly fertile swirl of human consciousness, has produced a layered, unpredictable feat of fiction. His themes of historical injustice and the legacy of colonial violence make The Promise a timely, urgent winner.