Damon Galgut’s remarkable new novel, The Promise, suggests that the demands of history and the answering cry of the novel can still powerfully converge. As a white South African writer, Galgut inherits a subject that must feel, at different times, liberating in its dimensions and imprisoning in its inescapability ... The Promise is drenched in South African history, a tide that can be seen, in the end, to poison all 'promise' ... Galgut’s novel most closely resembles the work of predecessors like Woolf and Faulkner in the way it redeploys a number of modernist techniques, chiefly the use of a free-floating narrator. Galgut is at once very close to his troubled characters and somewhat ironically distant, as if the novel were written in two time signatures, fast and slower. And, miraculously, this narrative distance does not alienate our intimacy but emerges as a different form of knowing ... His new novel exercises new freedoms. One is struck, amid the sombre events, by the joyous, puckish restlessness of the storytelling, which seems to stick to a character’s point of view only to veer away, mid-sentence ... Galgut uses his narrator playfully, assisted by nicely wayward run-on sentences ... Galgut outsources his storytelling, handing off a phrase or an insight to an indistinct community of what seem to be wise elders, who then produce an ironically platitudinous or proverbial commentary ... Galgut’s narrator skims across his spaces, alighting, stinging, moving on to the next subject. As the novel proceeds, his narrator seems to grow in adventurous authority.
A surprising number of novelists are very good; few are extraordinary. Like his compatriot J. M. Coetzee, the South African writer Damon Galgut is of this rare company; like Coetzee, he is stringent, pure. He has, however, and mercifully, a sense of humor, even an occasional playfulness, which leavens that stringency ... Indeed, the novel carries within it the literary spirits of Woolf and Joyce, including, from the former, an almost rushing fluidity of narrative consciousness, and from the latter, a direct allusion to The Dead in its final pages, when a torrential rain is unleashed upon the veld ... To praise the novel in its particulars—for its seriousness; for its balance of formal freedom and elegance; for its humor, its precision, its human truth—seems inadequate and partial. Simply: you must read it. Like other remarkable novels, it is uniquely itself, and greater than the sum of its parts. The Promise evokes, when you reach the final page, a profound interior shift that is all but physical. This, as an experience of art, happens only rarely, and is to be prized.
The Promise adopts a protean tone, now menacing, now darkly mirthful ... the novel registers seismic rumbles of a changing South Africa ... The Promise offers all the virtues of realist fiction, plus some extras. Galgut keeps the surface of his prose choppy, roiling it with diverse narrative tools: points of view that shift within paragraphs, or even sentences; cryptic rhetorical moves, including addressing the reader directly [...]; scenes that blur together with no transition; and an intermittent metafictional patter [...] A reader can shrug it all off and focus on the family’s story, or take pleasure in a brash writer’s narrative norm-breaking ... The novel’s cinematic present tense and kaleidoscopic point of view create a mosaic of what everyone in the room is thinking at a given moment. The picture is anything but pretty, a veneer of civility barely hiding the barbed sibling resentments that surface following parental deaths. Don’t look for much hope in this novel ... Galgut in The Promise is a gleeful satirist, mordantly skewering his characters’ fecklessness and hypocrisy.