A Booker winner that unquestionably deserved its triumph


This landscape of unaccountability on one hand and untutored fury on the other mirrors Galgut’s hunt for the spiritual and moral malware introduced into the Swarts’ DNA all those generations ago. Faulkner pinned-down the same infection in The Sound and the Fury and, unsurprisingly, that Southern voice, both dry and urgent, is a constant echo in The Promise.

Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton, are calibrated by four funerals. Rachel is barely there, Mani is his impoverished legacy, Astrid is irredeemable and therefore terminal and Anton, well, Anton is charismatic, dazzlingly intelligent, a man who “wants to eat the world. But a tiny sourness at the back of his throat seems always to have been there, though his life is pure and mild as milk.” Anton has potential but he too is weakened by the past, his family, himself. And he has committed a murder.

Yet Amor remains, transforming year by year from child into pure spirit, modestly acting to re-establish the central human and vividly absent virtue, kindness, in every aspect of her daily life. Each funeral is an occasion for her to remind the family about the promise. Amor is the sole survivor, perhaps because she has been the only one to leave the farm and the malevolent legacy.

Amor was marked. At eight, sitting near a tree on the koppie up behind the house she was struck by lightning. She should have died. The soles of her feet are burnt, she has lost a toe and the world, for those minutes, was a dazzling white. She is a saintly allegory, a burning girl, purified and carried, Cordelia-like down the hill in the arms of her father who would, in that moment, exchange his life for hers.

Her name, of course, in Afrikans, means Love. Swarts, of course, means black. The Promise is a devastation, a lingering provocation. It won the Booker Prize. Correctly.