Between the Bindings: ‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

by Jim McKeown

The 2021 Booker Prize was awarded to Damon Galgut for his stunning novel, The Promise. This was his third trip to the shortlist, and his novels have been nominated for both the Walter Scott and Folio Prizes and translated into sixteen languages (so far). A film adaptation of his 2004 novel The Quarry was released in 2020. Galgut lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Promise details the lives of the Afrikaner Swart family and their farm, located outside Pretoria, South Africa. The family consists of Manie, his wife Rachel, and their children Anton, Astrid, and Amor. The storyline stretches across forty years, with each decade featuring a death in the family.

The “promise” of the book’s title is one Rachel makes as she’s dying from cancer to Salome, the family’s Black housekeeper: that Salome will inherit the rundown house she lives in with her family. Amor, Rachel’s daughter, hears the promise but can’t convince her family to follow through with it.

The book begins when Amor is a young woman, shortly after her mother has passed. Galgut writes:

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

But when the words are said to her aloud, she doesn’t believe them. She closes her
eyes and shakes her head. No, no. It can’t be true, what her aunt has just told her.
Nobody is dead. It’s a word, that’s all. She looks at the word, lying there on the desk like an insect on its back, with no explanation.

The days pass, and Galgut continues:

Amor follows her aunt, not quite on the ground, a few centimeters above it, a giddy little gap between her and things, as she heads for the kitchen door. Inside, Oom Ockie is mixing himself a brandy-and-Coke, his second of the morning. He has recently retired from his government job as a draughtsman in Water Affairs and his days are listless. He jumps to guilty attention when he’s bust by his wife, sucking on his nicotine-stained moustache. He’s had hours to dress himself properly, but is still wearing tracksuit pants and a golfing shirt and slipslops. A blockish man with thinning hair Brylcreemed sideways across his scalp. He gives Armor a clammy hug, very awkward for both of them.

Sorry about your mother, he says.

Oh, that’s okay, Amor says, and immediately starts to cry.

The wealthy family discusses Salome’s position. Galgut writes:

But some things you do know, because you saw them yourself. In the same impassive way that Salome sweeps and cleans the house and washes the clothes of the people who live in it, she looked after Ma through her last illness, dressing and undressing her, helping her to bathe with a bucket of hot water and a lappie, helping her to go to the toilet, yes, even wiping her arse for her after she used the bedpan, mopping up blood and shit and pus and piss, all the jobs that people in her own family didn’t want to do, too dirty or too intimate, Let Salome do it, that’s what she’s paid for, isn’t it? She was with Ma when she died, right there next to the bed, though nobody seems to see her, she is apparently invisible. And whatever Salome feels is invisible too. She has been told, Clean up here, wash the sheets, and she obeys, she cleans up, she washes the sheets. 

The family knows they were supposed to provide Salome with a home and a plot of land in perpetuity, and this promise to her recurs:

Lucas saw Armor on the koppie yesterday. And she told him your father will give me my house.

I don’t know anything about that.

Okay, she says. Apparently unperturbed, though she has thought of nothing else since the words were spoken. To have her own house, to hold those papers in her hand!

Better ask my father, he says.

Okay. He watches her inscrutable back, which bore his infant self innumerable times, as it moves to and fro along the kitchen counter, carrying the stacked plates to the cupboard.

Yes, he says, absently. Better ask him.

The question about the house has traveled from his mother to his sister to Lucas to Salome and has now been planted in him, a tiny dark seed just starting to sprout. It comes back to him a couple of hours later, in another room on the far side of the city, at an almost arbitrary moment, doing up his shirt.

You know what my little sister said to Salome?

Who’s Salome?

The woman who… . Our maid.

What did your sister say to her?

That my father promised to give her a house.

Did he?

What

Promise. … Don’t let him give her a house to the maid, Desirée says, indignant. She’ll only break it.

I think it’s broken already. But that’s not the point.

Damon Galgut reveals the mistreatment of a good person who was promised a home, and The Promise is a story—recounted again and again—of the mistreatment of the lowest individuals in society scotching out an existence.

Jim McKeown, a lifelong voracious reader and English professor who recently retired from McLennan Community College, hosts the weekly book review program Likely Stories on KWBU, Waco’s NPR station.


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