‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut – A Lively Account of Four Deaths in an Afrikaner family


‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut  (2021) – 269 pages


The Promise’ is the devastating story of an Afrikaner family through about thirty years starting in 1986 with the mother Rachel’s death and funeral. Each of the four chapters deals with another death in the family, yet ‘The Promise’ is not at all gloomy or morose. Sometimes it is lurid and over-the-top with frightful imagery. It’s personal. Damon Galgut is heavily invested in this story.

There is something brilliant in the way Damon Galgut continuously and quickly shifts the focus from person to person here, each with their own vivid, frequently shocking, insights into what is happening. Sometimes the point of view shifts to minor walk-on characters like a homeless guy named Bob who sleeps outside the church where one of the funerals is being held. These people are by turns angry, sarcastic, nasty, stubborn, and petty, just like regular human beings. The son Anton says to his father on his father’s deathbed:

You were an alcoholic shit to my mother before you found religion and after that you were a sober kind of shit.”

It’s not for the squeamish. The detailed description of the cremation process here might make one decide against cremation, but the alternative is also shown not to be very attractive either. There are a lot of gross scenes including opening up the coffin in front of the funeral attendees to make sure the correct dead person is in it. We get a full description of the decaying body and its attendant smells.

Sometimes the vantage point even darts to an animal who wanders into the picture. Here is how Galgut sets the picture:

In the various rooms downstairs, everything is inert, except for the occasional scuttling insect, or is it a rodent, and the tiny expansions and contractions of the furniture. Pitter, patter, creak, creak.”

I forgive Damon Galgut all of his faults – his purple prose, his deliberate gruesomeness and crudity, his morbid fascination, and the mean turns he puts his characters through, because in the end ‘The Promise’ is near perfection. It’s rude and crude and outrageous, and that’s what makes it a stimulating read.

I guess I can reveal “the promise” since it is explained early in the novel. On her deathbed, the mother Rachel has decided to give one of their properties to their black housemaid and nurse Salome, and the father Manie has promised to do so.

As a side benefit to this intense and wild story, we get some major insights into the South Africa of today. I will let you read those for yourself which I urge you to do.


Grade:    A



6 responses to this post.

  1. I have this on order after Joe at Rough Ghosts told me about it. Galgut is *such* a good author!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. He is one of my favourite authors (I am slowly making my way through his back catalogue) and I’m really looking forward to reading it!

    Liked by 1 person


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