Ifeoma Chinwuba

Book Review

by Ifeoma Chinwuba

The Promise, Damon Galgut, Europa , 2021, 269 pages.

If I, or any other author had written The Promise, I bet an editor would have condemned its style or amended it to align with the ‘industry standards’, failing which, the corrections would have been effected at the level of the literary agent or publisher. The Promise flouts many rules you learnt at writing workshops. For one, there are no quotation marks to denote dialogue. Yet dialogues abound, weaving in and out of the author’s descriptions and narration. But they are not signposted.

Secondly, instances of head-popping overflow. Galgut swivels from one character’s point of view to another and back, or on to a third and back, a sleight literary gatekeepers frown at. In addition, he intrudes into the story with personal vowels of I, you and we, whose identities are difficult to pinpoint. In the hearse, I mean the house, (p.27). Not unusual for her, believe me, (p.44). Who do the pronouns represent? The author? Yet we are dealing with a narrative in the third person. A ghost narrator? Is this the stream-of-consciousness technique from the point of view of all characters, or a simple case of poetic licence? Was this book edited?

That notwithstanding, The Promise is structured around the funerals of four members of a family of five. The last one standing, at last has the opportunity to redress perceived wrongs and fulfill a promise made by the matriarch on her deathbed. Thirty years have passed and the country, the Republic of South Africa, has evolved. The oppressed demographic is acquiring more rights, diminishing the significance of the promised gift.

That these funerals are conducted according to four different religious rites and doctrines speaks volumes about the intractable fault lines in the  Swart family. They are family, but operate along parallel lines that never converge. As Marina, an extended family member observes, ‘oil and water don’t mix.’ These deaths also occur in an assortment of ways ranging from natural to accidental passing through murder.

Galgut brings a breath of fresh air in his way of seeing life. Someone twitches like a hit-and-run victim waiting for assistance, (p.43). A dominee is layered in his full regalia, the equivalent of a human peacock. (p.199) A fellow engaged in self-pleasuring is portrayed as trying to uproot his groin, (p.182). These figures of speech are as humorous as they are novel. He is not even pretty anymore, went up a few sizes in loincloth recently (p.227). And isn’t literature all about a new way of witnessing life, ascribing similarities to dissimilar phenomena?

The names of the personages are also symbolic: There is Anton, the wanton heir, Astrid, the unfaithful wife with legs astride, and Amor that telegraphs Agape. The cognomen, Swart, conveys an imperfect lineage with warts and all, the all including marital infidelity, alcoholism, indebtedness, filial obduracy, mental deficiency.

The Promise is a great read. The story of a dysfunctional family has been told time and again and will resonate with many a reader. In Galgut’s version, the Swart family’s erratic and rascally behaviour mirrors the upheaval in the republic. The old order is passing away, literally, giving way to a new reality.

Elsewhere, I found the whiteness of the page in this edition, disconcerting to the eyes. Publishers now favour off-white, butter colour sheets that are friendly to the reader. 

The poetic licence that Galgut deploys in The Promise is a shout-out to the publishing world to rethink the ‘one size fits all’ attitude in the industry. Editors and agents tend to straitjacket writers into a mold, with the result that many books, authored by different minds, end up being alike. A book can scoff at the rigid rules of writing and still make sense to an intelligent reader. All the author has to do, is take the reader by the hand, and walk them through the book’s republic.

Ms. Ifeoma Chinwuba is the 2021-2022 Writer-in-Residence of the Department of English and film Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton.