44 pages 1 hour read

Damon Galgut

The Promise

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Promise, published in 2021, is South African writer Damon Galgut’s eighth novel. Galgut’s fiction frequently explores the complicated world of South African society and politics, particularly the legacy of apartheid. The Promise tells the story of the Swarts, a white family descended from Dutch settlers who came to South Africa in the 17th century. The three Swart children come of age as the country undergoes the abolition of apartheid, a system that formally segregated South Africans on the basis of race. Each of the novel’s four parts revolves around one family member’s death, tracing the Swarts’ decline. Stylistically, The Promise aligns with classic works of literary modernism from the early 20th century in the tradition of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf, thanks to its wandering, fluid point of view.

Plot Summary

Part 1, “Ma,” revolves around the 1986 death of the Swart matriarch, Rachel. The youngest Swart sibling, Amor, resides at a boarding school, and the eldest Swart sibling, Anton, is current completing his mandatory service with the military. They both return home to join their middle sister, Astrid, and attend Rachel’s funeral services. Before she died, Rachel asked her husband, Manie, to grant the family’s Black maid, Salome, ownership of the house she lives in on the family’s land to repay her for her devoted service. Manie agrees, but after Rachel’s death he denies ever making the promise, despite Amor’s persistent objections that she heard it. Anton’s disagreement with Manie about the promise and other topics surrounding Rachel’s death creates a rift. After the funeral services, Amor goes back to her boarding school and Anton returns to his military unit. At the last minute, however, he decides to desert the military and hitchhikes to a far-off region.

Part 2, “Pa,” finds all three Swart children in their adulthood: Amor lives in London, Astrid is married with twins, and Anton lives far from the Swart family farm without a steady job. Nine years have passed since the last time all three siblings were together at their family home, but Manie’s death brings them back to Pretoria. By this time, Nelson Mandela is president and apartheid has ended, meaning that Black South Africans are now allowed, among other things, to enjoy the same spaces as white South Africans. The details of Manie’s death are macabre: At a publicized fundraiser for his minister Alwyn Simmers’s church, Manie climbs into a snake tank at his reptile park in order to test his faith and try to break the world record for the longest time spent in a snake tank. Predictably, the snake bites him and he dies shortly after. Because of a clause in Manie’s will, Anton is forced to apologize to Simmers over a previous disagreement in order to claim his part of the substantial inheritance Manie leaves behind for his three children. While Anton agrees to Amor’s request that he finally honor Manie’s promise to give Salome ownership of her home, he takes no action to do so.

Another nine years pass between Part 2 and Part 3. Amor left London and now works as a nurse in a South African AIDS ward. Astrid left her first husband for a man with whom she had an affair. Anton married a girlfriend from his youth, Desirée, and lives on the Swart farm. Although Astrid’s new marriage puts her in close proximity to powerful political figures, this status does not help her avoid South Africa’s rising crime rates: A carjacker kills her to steal and sell her car. Once more, Amor and Anton reunite at the Swart farm for a funeral. Amor again raises the unfulfilled promise to Anton; however, Anton takes no action.

Part 4 begins in 2017. One night, Anton—drunk, mired in depression, and unable to find any purpose in life—kills himself with his father’s gun in a field outside the Swart home. Amor returns home one last time determined to finally do something about Manie’s promise. She enlists the help of the family lawyer and finally, after 31 years, presents Salome with the ownership of the house she lives in. Salome’s son, Lukas, treats this gesture with scorn, insisting it has no meaning given how belated it is. Amor also gives Salome the entire sum of her inheritance from Manie, however, which is a more financially substantial gift. After scattering her brother’s ashes, Amor prepares to leave the farm and start the next chapter of her life with the weight of the unfulfilled promise finally off her shoulders. 

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