Damon Galgut (2021) The Promise.

The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize. The premise is simple, but it got muddled up in my mind. Ma (Rachel Swart) has terminal cancer. She makes Pa (Herman Albertus Swart, known as Mannie) promise that he’ll leave the house and title deeds to the woman that has nursed her and helped bring up her children, Salome. But the hired help, or servant, is black. She lives with her son, Lukas, on what is termed The Lombard Place. A farm worker’s home outside Pretoria, in South Africa.

Amor, the youngest daughter, aged eleven, has to be brought from boarding school for the funeral by Tannie Marina. She heard her Ma asking her Pa, and making him promise, which he did. Amira, her eldest sister is already home. But her elder brother, Anton, has been called up for National Service. There’s always some kind of national emergency. He’s been given a few days’ leave to go home for his Ma’s funeral. She’d been making things difficult. Turning away from Dutch Reformed Christianity and insisting on being buried in the Jewish part of the graveyard. Anton seems to be in shock, and confusing his Ma’s death with the black woman he shot, who’d been throwing stones at a demonstration. Oom Ockie, Marina’s husband, makes things easy by reminding Pa that blacks can’t own property. It’s against the law, and morally suspect.

Pa’s funeral leads to a new reckoning under Nelson Mandela. Like the new South Africa, after the end of the apartheid, he’d been doing quite well for himself, and his family. But he’d put off settling the matter of giving Salome the title deeds to her property. Amor has been travelling in Europe. She’s no longer the chunky kid that Amira remembered. Her thinness and beauty have begun to slide. Of course, she’s not jealous. Amor had always been self-possessed, but now she was being ridiculous, insisting on giving property to the hired help.

Anton admits to doing things he’s not proud of. He had to borrow 2000 rand from an older woman than him he’d been living with. But now he’s home and a property owner, it’s the new start he’d been looking for. He goes looking for his old flame Desiree. Her dad had to appear before The Truth and Conciliation Commission. He used to be feared. Now he’s just pitied. Anton’s secret is he plans to be a novelist.

He makes a start, and for twenty years (like many of us) keeps up the pretence. A different kind of promise. Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma. The countries falling apart. Little electricity and fear when they turn the taps no water will come out, but money leaking out in bribes. The Promise remains. Salome, ‘a basket of bones,’ has waited over 30 years. Amor remembers and will not let go. Read on.