Publisher Chatto and Windus
Published June 17th 2021
The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.
The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.
In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.
So subtle and cleverly written, I’m not even sure how to begin to explain how this book is put together, but it works, and I found I couldn’t stop myself wanting to read on and learn more about these characters.
Spanning from the 1980’s to present day the story is about a white South African family called the Swarts. The book opens with the death of the mother (Ma) and on her death dead, as the farther sits with his wife, the youngest child, Amor, overhears the mother make her husband promise to give the little house their maid Salome lives in with her son, to her, in recognition of the time and care she has given to Ma during her illness. This promise stays with Amor and over the coming years we quickly learn it is of little importance to the remaining members of this decidingly fractured family.
We are introduced to each member of the family at Ma’s funeral and as the book continues we learn from the characters themselves more about each of them and how the family disintegrates as a unit. The plot is slow moving and often sad but the amazing way this book is written and the overall feel of the book kept me enthralled.
The narration is done in a way I have never come across before. Moving around constantly from third, second and first person, at points they seem to be talking to the reader, at others the narrator when talking of a character in the third person seems to enter their thoughts, giving us the dialogue within their head, and with no speech marks it takes a little getting used to but I did. At times it felt like I was watching a play with a narrator and characters all on stage with my head turning back and forth to each as they speak.
Key figures within South Africa’s past are mentioned and so to are the water shortages, power cuts and even sporting events like the Rugby and along with the dynamics within the family, their religions, mental heath, alcohol consumption, and affairs, it all adds up to a wonderfully rounded but subtle look at one family over the years.
The story is divided up into chapters about each of the family members, learning a little of their past from when the book begins, but mainly watching their lives unfurl as the decades move along and each time we see Amor returning home with that Promise.
A really engaging, atmospheric and wonderfully written novel.
Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Vintage Books for bringing this book to my attention and my advance readers copy via Netgalley.