The Promise | Book Review

The Promise

Damon Galgut

293 pages

ISBN: 9781784744069


Penguin Random House



Salome has served the Swart family for years. A Black South African, she has seen to the needs of Rachael, her husband Manie, and raised the couple’s three children – Anton, Astrid, and Amor. As Salome tends to a dying Rachael, the white matriarch of the family, she is promised her own house and plot of land on the Swart farm. Years pass, and Rachael’s spoken promise rests with one family member after another. South Africa, though, is a country coming to terms with Apartheid. Old promises are broken whilst new ones are made, and the word of a dying woman is blown away on the winds of change.

This is a book that is about Salome, and yet not about her at all. We cycle through chapters named after Swart family members, and through eras of South Africa’s emergence from Apartheid – Botha, through Mandela, through Mbeki, to Zuma. At each turn we examine a nation’s broken promises in often excoriating and uncomfortable detail. The Swarts’ place in a changing country is increasingly insecure and unnecessary amidst a Black population growing in confidence.

Front cover of the 'The Promise' by Damon Galgut

Galgut employs a roving narrator who sometimes changes perspective within the same paragraph. This technique can be jolting but the omniscience allows us to dip into characters’ motives, their petty rivalries and self-absorption. It allows us to explore Amor’s reticence to engage with her family’s legacy, Astrid’s search for a lost identity in the arms of a man not her husband, and Anton’s descent into alcoholism after killing a civilian during his military service. The characters’ flaws are laid bare as Apartheid is laid to rest, and the pace of the narrative never falters, driven as it is by those era-defining moments in South African history.

Underneath the spectacle of a family falling apart, Salome remains an ethereal presence – an almost intentionally bland character. Galgut’s writing about the Swarts is so rich and engaged that this omission on behalf of Salome is profound; she is the antithesis of her white employers’ bickering and moneygrubbing, the one stable point of reference in a changing landscape. She goes about the big house unrushed, her bare heels cracked and dry, and clothed in her employers’ hand-offs. Salome is intentionally stolid and ‘wears her life like a mask, like a graven image’; we get the impression she will be at the farm long after its owners have left.

Will the Swart family find redemption? Will Salome finally receive what was promised to her? We come perilously close to ‘white saviour’ territory at the denouement of the novel, but the complexity of the Swart’s guilt provides the necessary nuance. A promise made to Salome is a wonderful device through which we explore the promise of a country renewed, and Galgut’s South Africa is beautiful and sordid in equal measure.

‘The Promise’ is Damon Galgut’s ninth novel. It won him the 2021 Booker Prize and paints us a compelling picture of a nation beginning to come to terms with its past.

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, Idle Ink, The Wild Word, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at and tweets at

8 thoughts on “The Promise | Book Review

  1. it sounds a compelling read, Matthew examining a long period of turmoil. I’m reading a book, a much slimmer one, Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’ set in an Irish town in the mid i980’s with one stolid, compassionate character, Bill Furlong , a coal and timber merchant who faces the complicit silence of a community around the abuses of nuns towards their ‘wards’; it makes painful yet rewarding reading–

    Liked by 1 person

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