I was only three or four, I think, when I learned adults could not necessarily be relied upon to keep their promises. At that time my mother’s youngest sister and her husband were the only members of the family to own a car. They visited every Sunday and I’d perch on the window ledge, waiting for the gleaming, white vehicle to pull up outside the house. I looked forward as much to seeing the car as I did to seeing Auntie Terri and Uncle Joe, if not more.
One Sunday as they were preparing to leave, Terri promised that the following week they would take me for a ride. I was beyond excited. The intervening seven mornings, afternoons and evenings crawled by until finally the longed-for day arrived. I stayed as quiet as a mouse while Terri and Joe had tea and cake – I knew treats could be withdrawn if I was ‘naughty’ so I was intent on being ‘good’ – and when Terri and Joe got up to leave I followed them.
I often walked to the front gate with Mum to wave them off, so it was only when I was standing with them on the pavement that Terri asked me if I wanted something. My car-ride, of course! “Maybe next week chick-a-bid”, said Terri, and then she was gone, they were gone, the car was gone, my dream of a ride…gone.
The bottom had had fallen out of my toddler-world and I was utterly, inconsolably distraught. I screamed. I howled. “It’s not fair…she promised” were the only words I could gasp out between sobs, while hot, fat tears rolled down my cheeks. Mum told me not to make such a fuss but even in the midst of my bawling I was aware Dad was cross with Terri. She shouldn’t have promised the child, he was telling Mum, if she wasn’t going to keep her word.
An unfulfilled promise is the unifying thread running through the narrative of The Promise by Damon Galgut. The novel tells the story of the Swarts, a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria; the titular promise is that Salome, the black woman who has worked for the family her whole life, should be given ownership of the house she lives in. It won the 2021 Booker Prize.
The story spans thirty years (though the book itself is not especially long, less than 300 pages in my Chatto & Windus Hardback edition) mainly achieved by narrative ‘jumps’. For example ten years have elapsed between the end of the first chapter and the start of the second.
There are four chapters / sections, each named after a member of the Swart family – Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton – although the names do not correlate to the narrator. In fact the narrative viewpoint within each section continually jumps from character to character, or as the blurb on the book jacket has it “the narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters”. I confess I found this technique really, really irritating at first. I’d start reading a paragraph thinking it was one character, get so far in and realise a different character was now narrator, then have to re-read the paragraph from the start with them in mind. I did learn to adapt as the book progressed, though, and by the end I could tell pretty much instantly which character was narrating.
On one level The Promise is simply a story of a dysfunctional family who “crash and burn” (the blurb again). But the promise about Salome’s house could also be seen as a metaphor for South Africa. When the youngest Swart child, Amor, then aged thirteen, tells Salome’s son, Lukas, also thirteen, that the house will be theirs, Lukas is silent but “confused. It’s always been his house. He was born there, he sleeps there, what is the white girl talking about?” Roll forward thirty years and Lukas and Amor are talking about the house again, although now Lukas has found his voice: “And still you don’t understand, it’s not yours to give. It already belongs to us. This house, but also the house where you live, and the land it’s standing on. Ours! Not yours to give out as a favour when you’re finished with it. Everything you have, white lady, is already mine. I don’t have to ask.”
Rating ** Worth reading.