Join us for our latest book club episode on The Promise by Damon Galgut.
Dazzling, original, heartfelt and exhilarating, or bleak, depressing, incoherent and unrealistic? What did Kate’s book club make of The Promise, Damon Galgut’s Booker-prize-winning novel, which tells the story of one white South-African family, and the promise made to their black servant, Salome.
On a farm outside Pretoria, the Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least their treatment of the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. Salome was to be given her own house, her own land…yet somehow, that vow is carefully ignored. As each decade passes, and the family assemble again, one question hovers over them. Can you ever escape the repercussions of a broken promise?
The Booker judges called The Promise ‘A tour de force …. A spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh’, while novelist Claire Messud wrote ‘The Promise evokes, when you reach the final page, a profound interior shift that is all but physical. This, as an experience of art, happens only rarely, and is to be prized.’
And so it was with high expectations that Kate’s book club set about their annual reading of the Booker prizewinner, but did The Promise meet them? Listen in as we’re joined by regular book-clubber Stuart Marshall and don’t miss our follow-on book recommendations at the end, from Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime to Claire Keegan’s impactful novella Small Things Like These.
Today Trevor Noah is a household name, presenting The Daily Show in the US and commanding audiences and attention around the world. But not so long ago he was a little-known comedian, struggling to break into the big time. Because he was ‘mixed race’, with a Xhosa mother and a white, Swiss, father, Noah’s existence was illegal in Apartheid South Africa and his childhood a strange one as a result. He wasn’t allowed to go out onto the street and play, for example, and spent all his time in family members’ houses. His mother had to walk behind him when they went out in public so that people would not realise that he was her son. Despite his difficult upbringing Noah thrived and in addition to his comedic talent he is a wonderful writer. This vivid account will have you glued to the page and it provides a fascinating background to South African society. USA Today called it ‘A soul-nourishing pleasure, even with all its darker edges and perilous turns’ and we highly recommend it to, for book club or for your own personal reading pleasure.
“How does a government steal a child and then imprison him? How does it keep that a secret? This book is how.” My Name is Why is Lemn Sissay’s memoir of his childhood, brought up by a foster family after his mother gave birth to him in the UK and then returned to Ethiopia. Although the family who took him in were initially loving, things changed as they had children of their own and he grew older. The book is a mixture of his own memories interspersed with documents from the Social Services that chronicled what was going on behind the scenes. Abandoned again by his foster family Sissay ended up in children’s homes, and eventually in a juvenile reform centre. It’s a little bit of a random inclusion here, but it came up after the discussion of Trevor Noah. Like Noah, Sissay had the creative gifts that enabled him to survive and this is a wonderful book that would make for brilliant book club discussion. If you haven’t read it, do give it a try.
Claire Keegan’s haunting short novel tells of Bill Furlong, a man who has risen from humble origins to become a successful coal merchant, supplying the small Irish town with fuel. At home are his wife and five daughters, and together they live modestly but comfortably. Bill’s life is an unvarying routine of work and him but one day, delivering coal to the local convent, he discovers a young woman freezing, locked in the coal cellar. Considering his own upbringing, and his love for his daughters, Bill comes to question his certainties about the ‘good’ sisters of the Convent and the folk of the town who like him, turn a blind eye. Beautifully written, thought-provoking and moving, this would be a wonderful starting point for book club discussion.
‘Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewardship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm. As the upheaval in Mehring’s world increasingly resembles that in the country as a whole, it becomes clear that only a seismic shift in ideas and concrete action can avert annihilation.’ Not one that we’ve yet read, but definitely one we want to get to soon, and the perfect follow-on from The Promise.
If you enjoyed this show don’t miss our 2021 Booker Prize special episode, where we discuss The Promise and the other five shortlisted titles, and listen in live as the winner is announced.
If Laura’s Trevor Noah recommendation has left you wanting more you can watch You Laugh But It’s True, a documentary following his first stand-up show in the US.
This interview with Damon Galgut for Waterstones offers much insight into his intentions for The Promise.
Kate: Hello, and welcome to the Book Club Review. I’m Kate.
Laura: I’m Laura.
K: And this is the podcast about book clubs and the books that get you talking. Today we’re discussing The Promise by South African novelist Damon Galgut, which follows the Swart family as each member comes to terms with a promise made by the father to his dying wife that their servant and housekeeper, Salome, would be given ownership of her small house on the family’s land.
L: The Promise won the Booker Prize in 2021. Fellow novelist Rose Tremain called Galgut ‘the most worthy winner of the Booker Prize we’ve seen for many years.’ She added, ‘The book trembles in the hand with its political relevance.’ Meanwhile, Elizabeth Day called it ‘A masterpiece. One of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, a moving brilliantly told family epic.’
K: The book is no stranger to us here on the pod as we enjoyed reading and discussing it for our Booker Prize episode. But that was before my book club got their teeth into it. What did they think that it sparked debate? And whether they loved or loved it? The big question is, was it the great book club book, keep listening, as we’re joined by Stuart Marshall, regular member of my book club to find out.
K: Hi, Stuart, welcome to the pod.
Stuart: It’s a pleasure to be here. Nice to join you in the virtual podcast shed.
K: It feels very familiar to me to have you here because I’m quite used to seeing you on screen. I particularly wanted you to join us because you, unlike anyone else in my book club, actually have a family connection to South Africa, don’t you?
S: I certainly do. Yeah, my mother’s side of the family. They actually come from Holland but spent the majority of their lives out in South Africa. My mum lived there till she was in her late 20s And I was actually born out there. I’m not gonna say that I’m an expert on South African politics or anything, but I definitely have a few personal experiences and some stuff that my mum’s shared with me.
K: Okay, The Promise, what’s it about? It charts the crash and burn of a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria, the Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stands for, not least the failed promise to the black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house her own land. Yet somehow as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The narrator’s eyes shift and blink, moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams, deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old, deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
The audio book is read by Peter Noble. Let’s listen to a clip.
K: I was not that familiar with South African history. Beyond the really obvious big picture stuff. Obviously, I was aware of Apartheid, was aware of the end of Apartheid. I knew who Nelson Mandela was, I knew that the rugby team had done well, just bits and pieces. When I read The Promise, I was very aware that it was referencing different periods in South African history. And for me, I was learning about it through the book.
I was looking online and someone summed it up quite nicely: ‘The novel traverses four decades of modern South Africa, starting with the last years of Apartheid, and proceeding through the optimism of Mandela and the Rugby World Cup, the corruption of Zuma and ending with the faint hope and promise of a new South Africa.’
And so in this book, we’ve literally got this promise between one person and another, but also this metaphorical promise. So there’s a lot going on here, plus a very character driven story. And it’s told in quite an interesting way, this narrative style is very distinct, and something that certainly the Booker judges picked up on. Stuart, how did you get on with that narrative voice?
S: For me, that was probably the outstanding element of this book. I’m a big fan of film, it had a real cinematic edge to it. It was no surprise to me, that whole narrative structure was born out of the author’s experience coming from writing a film script, he said that the writer could behave like a camera moving in close and then suddenly pulling far back jumping from one character to another in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence or following some sideline of action that has nothing to do with the plot. I think that really captured perfectly what he achieved.
And I think the real skill in it was how successfully he did it. Because although it did jump around rapidly from different perspectives, whether it be first person, third person or taking you on a sideline away from the main plot, I think you always knew exactly where you were.
L: I found it exciting. You know, we’re not cynical readers. But it takes a lot, I think, for me to feel excited by prose. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. The Booker shortlist was announced, I knew I was gonna have to read all the books, I read a Guardian article, and it was like ‘death is a consistent theme in all these books’ – I was like, ‘Oh, God, Death? I’m thin-skinned! I don’t want to read about death!’
And so I decided to sample each of the books through Kindle and just see which one hooked me. And this book, which is structured around four deaths and the short term action after each of these deaths, is amazingly gripping. And it’s not depressing, although I have heard other people say they found it quite sad. But the author’s doing something really special here. I mean, I think that’s why he won the Booker.
K: I know in bookclub it was one of the points that people struggled with was this narration and the way it flits about. Maria was saying she didn’t feel it settled long enough for her to really get to know a character before suddenly it takes you off somewhere else.
I think it must just come down to your personal preference because like you, Laura, and Stuart as well, perhaps, I tended to find it exhilarating. I love the way that it would suddenly divert from a major character like Amor, starting the novel opening with her and her perspective as she’s taken out of school. And she’s taken to the house where she knows her mother has died and awful sadness of that.
And then at the wake, suddenly, it flits from these main characters to the side character of this minor priest who’s there and this crisis of faith that he’s having, and it rests on him for just a paragraph and then it jumps away again, but you’ve learned everything you need to know about that character in that brief little vignette. And I loved the way he did that. It felt interesting and exhilarating, and you didn’t quite know where it was going to take you next.
S: I think you’re right, you either love it or hate it. But it’s funny that you should pick up on that moment, because that’s the moment where I suddenly thought this is really intriguing. It was jumping into that character’s head, a character with no real significance in the overarching plot, but it just felt interesting. And at that point, I was like, ‘Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.’
K: And they’re not particularly likeable characters. You get this very early on. Amor is the one that you feel the most sympathetic towards. She’s sort of the one who grabs your heart at the beginning, you care about her, and you see this family through her eyes. But of course, quickly, you start to see through other people’s eyes, and the family are revealed to be grasping, petty, self interested, self loathing and deeply racist.
So when Amor goes to the house, she comes to see Salome who has brought her up alongside her mother. To everybody else, it’s very clear very quickly, that she’s just invisible. It’s like they don’t really see her or if they do, they order her around characters will literally say, ‘Don’t worry about her, she doesn’t have any feelings.’
And then this question of race, and the white South Africans and the black South African within their midst, and the way that they feel about that, which because you’re seeing things through their perspective, you feel uncomfortably complicit in, continues throughout the book.
And one of the other questions that came up for my book club felt a bit frustrating, it felt like we didn’t really have time to debate it properly. We didn’t have the knowledge that maybe we needed to really understand what he was trying to achieve. But the criticism that some people levelled at it was that they felt like they were only hearing the white perspective of the story, and that they weren’t hearing the black voices, the black characters weren’t given a voice. And where they did appear, they seemed it to be very stereotyped, they had just gone to jail or were kind of ne’er do wells. To some people in my book club, I think that felt very reductive. And they were disappointed by that.
I didn’t feel like that when I read it, I felt that he was trying to do something more interesting with it. And it was quite subtle what he was trying to do. And on re-reading it, it felt more clear to me that it’s a very deliberate choice that Galgut has made not to have those characters, speaking, not to have them in a position of agency with control over their own stories.
S: I think it was really powerful. The fact that he was completely silent on that. And having, like I said, had a bit more time to investigate and research, it was clearly a decision he made intentionally, there’s a really powerful bit, which ties back to what we’ve already discussed around the changing perspective. Very near the end, Galgut actually says to the reader, ‘If Salome’s home hasn’t been mentioned before, it’s because you have not asked, you didn’t care to know.’ I remember that really hit home that it clearly been left out on purpose.
It was interesting, I mean, drawing a little bit of my mother’s experience. I was asking her about this after the criticism from the book club. And she was quite open. They had help when she was growing up, you know, living with them, living in a room at the bottom of the garden kind of thing. And she said that nobody did pay any interest, no-one asked about the life that these people were leading outside of what they saw. And unfortunately, it seems pretty representative of the white attitude towards those kind of helpers at the time.
K: What I think he does that so remarkable is that it’s not even straightforwardly judgmental about these white South Africans that we’re following throughout this novel. It felt like they themselves are shown to be victims of circumstance, especially as the children grow. This novel follows the passage of decades. And so in that time, Amor grows from a young child to a 45-year-old woman when the story ends, and we see how the unequal society in which they live and were born into it was not of their making. They inherited the situation and they grew up in this situation. And it you see how the guilt of that knowledge of being effectively usurpers in a country that you were born in, I felt was the thing that was sort of shown to be ultimately destroying them, particularly the son, Anton.
He’s been conscripted into the army. So in that very fact about him is something telling, you know, he didn’t choose to go into the army to fight he was conscripted, he was forced to go. Throughout this novel characters are in positions where they’re ending up doing things that they don’t particularly want to do, but that that’s what’s expected of them, or that that’s what they’ve come to expect of themselves. And so that dictates the way that they behave. You couldn’t really be sympathetic towards them because they were just all awful, even Amor, who is arguably the the conscience of the novel. You know, she is the good character in this novel. But even she I think is shown to be somehow flawed because she’s still a part of this system. And there is no solution to centuries of inequality.
S: Isn’t that on the flip side, though, what makes the novel so powerful and the characters so believable the fact that they are complex. I actually felt a real sympathy for Anton. Like you said, he had no choice in being conscripted, he experienced a terrible event that almost set his life going down a completely different path. You don’t fully appreciate the impact that it had on his life until his book is discovered late on. And you see then that event, without wanting to give away any spoilers, has really had a massive impact. He has never really recovered from it and you suddenly realised maybe that’s why he acted in the way he did or why he was the way he was.
K: No, I’m like you, I couldn’t help but like Anton, I did rather like him. And there were moments where he showed flashes of kind of nobility of spirit, where you sort of wanted to say, ‘Yes!’ you know, cheer him on, because he was the only one saying that thing that needed to be said. Yet ultimately, as with almost all the other characters – but I mean, I think this is why people find it depressing. No one really comes out of it well, and there is something a bit relentlessly downbeat about that.
I did feel that the Amor character was a little bit of a cypher, is it, when a character exists for the purpose of moving the plot along? I would have loved it, if she had had more depth, her story had been more well rounded, you know, she she sort of disappears, she holds herself at a distance, because she has this principle at stake for her, which is if her family will not make good on the promise that she overheard – her mother asked if her father and her father agreed – if the family then won’t make good on this promise, she then sort of withdraws and holds herself apart.
And that’s her way, the only way that she seems to be able to muster to put any kind of pressure on them or exert any influence of her own. But so as a result, she’s quite absent for long stretches of the novel and the absence is in itself, almost like a kind of political act. For me, it left her feeling a bit one-dimensional.
S: I think some of the book group did criticise that character for being a bit too saintly. I think that’s possibly fair. We generally feel that there’s a good explanation for a lot of the choices that he made, but that one I do struggle with.
K: And then this wider political context. And the idea that these people are all living in the aftermath of settler colonialism, which is brought to a head when finally we’re going to find out if the promise is going to be fulfilled, and if the land is going to be given to Salome. And the point is raised, that the land was never theirs to give in the first place, that they themselves stole the land, going back to the original, arguable theft of the land from the people that were living there in the first place, who were not consulted.
I don’t know that much about South Africa. I’ve never been there. I felt like my knowledge was really sketchy. But nonetheless, I’m from England. We colonised the whole of the world, we went tromping around and took things that didn’t belong to us and enriched ourselves in the process. America – an entire nation founded on people who went and took the land away from the Native Americans. Australia, same story! So it taps into even now, you know, if you really consider the privilege that we have and where it comes from, you can’t feel very good about it.
For me, of all the Booker Prize shortlist, it was the one that was grappling with the biggest ideas, the biggest scope of ideas, because it was not just a local story, it somehow managed to be something that I felt was global in the questions that it was raising, and really thought provoking in such a good way, you know, you just feel challenged by it. Why do we read? This is a great story, and you like the characters and it is incredibly as you say, cinematic, and you really feel like you’re there and all the things that you want from a good novel, but it asks something of you as well. And it causes you to question things, which is what you want from art – that’s why I felt for me, it was a very worthy winner.
L: I agree with your point that it makes you think about the global context or maybe it connects with us in a different context. But I also wonder what we miss by not being in South Africa. Is Galgut writing for an international audience? I don’t think he is. He is writing for South Africans. Stuart, do you have any thoughts on that?
S: I tend to agree with you Laura, I certainly felt that it was writing more for local audience, it felt like it had the conviction of an author who wasn’t really trying to go for global stardom and wasn’t trying to pander to an international audience, but was just telling some real truths some of which do travel. I think we haven’t really touched on some of the other themes of the book, mortality and the passage of time, and all of these elements, because I think, Kate, like you said, this book is so layered. There’s so many different ideas in it.
K: Did you mention to me that your mother had read it?
S: Yes. And she was firmly of the opinion that it was completely telling the truth. Like I mentioned the story, you know, the attitude towards some of the black people through the ’60s and ’70s. My dad moved out to South Africa, where he met my mum. And they bought a plot of land out in the middle of what was then nowhere, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. And there was an old black couple living in a tin shed on that piece of land that they bought. So on a very small scale, they lived a similar kind of story to the one told in this book.
And again, my mum said there was no talk of where they’d come from. And they felt that these people were encroaching on their land. And they had this feeling that this black couple thought this white couple were crazy trying to build a house in the middle of nowhere with no running water and electricity. And then out of the blue one day, this couple disappeared, and were never heard of again.
I challenged my mum the same way you guys have been alluding to and said, ‘Well, you know, whose land was it? Really? I mean, you bought that piece of land. But who did you buy it from? And who did they get it from?’ I think those kinds of experiences, there must be a lot of South Africans that had similar experiences throughout the time covered in the book.
K: It is a very dark novel, but at the same time there are these flashes of dark humour that did liven it up for me and sometimes made me smile. It had such a knowing quality to it that I appreciated.
S: I think sometimes it was just so outrageous that you couldn’t help but laugh at some of the attitudes as well.
K: Anton. Occasionally, he felt like the character with the most comic potential.
S: And the aunt as well. She was just so obnoxious at the start!
L: Tannie Marina. And Oom Ockie…
S: [laughs] Exactly! Just horrible people but funny to observe.
K: Well, it may have won the Booker Prize; I may think it was the most extraordinary piece of literature, stroke art, but it did not go down well with book club, I think it’s fair to say – who are open, curious, interested readers. And this book, to my surprise, really fell flat with them.
I think the problem then when you come to read a Booker winner is that you have a certain set of expectations. So then it’s quite easy to be underwhelmed or disappointed. I also think it’s a book that asks something of you, demands something of you as a reader. And it’s not to say that my book club aren’t equal to that kind of reading, because I know that they all are. They’re all extraordinary readers, but they’re also people who are quite busy. And I just felt they hadn’t really had the time to reflect on it and to think about it.
Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything if they had I mean, you know, as ever, they gave interesting, thoughtful criticism and comments. Perhaps it’s my own disappointment that I had wanted them to see more in this than they did.
Maria gave it two and a half out of five. (That’s crazy!) She said ‘I thought that the way it was written was quite curious, the way he hovered in this way. [This is the narrator.] I did find it interesting to think about South Africa, all the little words that I was unfamiliar with. I found the family story interesting, but at the same time, I didn’t like any of them. And it doesn’t feel like a book that’s going to stay with me at all. The formal brilliance seemed like smoke in your eyes when there’s not that much substance underneath.
Meanwhile, Andy H said it was an ‘OK book that was for me completely overrated. I liked the writing, found it easy to read, but I didn’t care about any of the characters at all. It just didn’t add anything to my experience of what I know about South Africa. I didn’t feel I learned anything from it. And I didn’t really enjoy reading it all that much. I didn’t find the form particularly impressive either. Didn’t feel anything. I didn’t think anything, laughed occasionally. That was about it.’
L: I feel like that’s the curse of the Booker right there. I think that’s Andy, a good friend of mine, being contrary, I feel like if he had discovered it on his own, he would have been like ‘I found this amazing book.’
K: Meanwhile, Amanda said she found it difficult because she loved South Africa. She has travelled there. She said the energy, the diversity, the youthfulness, the variety of it, it was like nowhere she’d ever been. And it had this incredibly powerful effect on her. And she found this novel such a different reflection of that, that she wasn’t seeing the South Africa that she knew and loved. She said there was a slight moment in the novel when the whole nation gets behind the rugby team that felt to her like something of the kind of joyful side, I suppose, of South Africa that she’d experienced. But for the rest, I think it was just very flat and downbeat.
She said, ‘I love the narrative voice hovering. And after our discussion, I’m becoming more aware of the layers of symbolism, because I’d say the other thing is, I think in discussion, as we started to explore some of these topics, I think people will then reflect on it slightly differently, which is interesting, and goes to whether it’ll be a good book club book. But for me, Galgut didn’t give me any insight into humanity that didn’t feel hackneyed, his ideas about women, the way they felt about each other felt tired, it felt prejudiced and limited, and I wanted more from it.’
L: I agree with all of that. But I feel like it’s a portrait of a prejudiced and limited culture, specific to one family on the decline. That diverse, exciting South Africa that Amanda has interacted with is not the subject of this novel. It’s about that old white culture founded on racism and inequality and its kind of disintegration.
S: And as Kate alluded to at the start, there is an element of society, black and white, that do feel betrayed. That the promise in that wider context was never delivered, that everyone was building a new community together. And from their perspective, it has never really happened.
K: Looking online, you get good and bad. Jay Sweetman called it ‘one of the books of the year’ writing: ‘This is a stunning novel and a great read unless perhaps you’re a white South African who is disinclined to support majority rule and thinks your heritage has been stolen. It takes you into the heart of a country, which is often held up as some shining example of democracy in action, and reveals all the complexities which lie behind that easy story. It’s about a promise and how a pledge can be half followed through. And that’s a metaphor as well. It’s also about how civil strife leads terrible scars on a country and its culture. But in all of this, the book avoid sensationalism, and has genuine characters who are multi layered and interesting. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and highly recommended.’
But not everyone agrees, Sercan give it two stars, writing ‘It’s not a terrible book, and certainly not the worst on the Booker longlist, but I’m surprised it’s been as well received as it has. It was a bit boring with no tension to propel you forward. The plot was thin, the characters underdeveloped, and I’m not really sure it said anything fresh or interesting. The characters were like puppets, they participate in scenes but they don’t learn change or grow.’
L: Like human beings! [laughs]
K: Penultimate gave it two stars saying ‘I was looking forward to reading this after the Booker Prize and all those great reviews, I found implausible characterisation, lack of coherence, artificial connections to political events, and irritating attempts at humour. One of the characters writes a novel, which is described by another character as having a strong start that loses its way. I would describe The Promise as a novel that has a weak start that never finds its way.’
L: That’s just wrong. The structure of this novel is like rock solid!
S: I agree with you though. Okay, I think out of all of the book club, probably after yourself, I was probably most enthusiastic about this book, but not overly enthusiastic. And I think you hit the nail on the head, I think I’ve really discovered so much more having had this opportunity to revisit it and really spend a bit more time understanding all the layers.
K: It goes to that thing, I think, you know, you can have an experience reading this book on your own. And you can have quite a different experience if you read it and then discuss it. And to me, it definitely enhances and deepens the pleasure to be able to reflect on that and to be challenged and to care. Having those other perspectives makes you sharpen your own viewpoints on it.
L: So a great book club book, perhaps given that it was so divisive. Lots of follow on discussion. Three enthusiasts here.
K: I was going to give the last word to Claire Messud, the author. She says, ‘A surprising number of novelists are very good, few are extraordinary. Like his compatriot J.M. Coetzee, the South African writer Damon Galgut is of this rare company. To praise the novel in its particulars for its seriousness, for its balance of formal freedom and elegance, for its humour, its precision, its human truth seems inadequate and partial. Simply, you must read it. Like other remarkable novels, it is uniquely itself and greater than the sum of its parts. The Promise evokes, when you reach the final page, a profound interior shift that is all but physical. This is an experience of art happens only rarely and is to be prized.’
L: Uniquely itself is the highest praise indeed.