The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated. 

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is –  and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a  peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.

The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Sophia, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Sophia and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left? 

The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Sophia; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult. 

The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place? 

Highly recommended.

Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo pic
British writer, Bernardine Evaristo MBE won the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other.

Even before I started reading, I saw – there were no capital letters, no fullstops and the lines were of different lengths – and my prejudices jumped up and I thought, ‘Oh, poetry.’

But then I started reading – each new sentence, no capital letter, begins on a new line and there is no full stop, just a new line; and the unconventional format didn’t hamper the understanding.  It was clear. There is punctuation within each sentence, just not to begin or end them.

Evaristo calls it ‘an experimental novel’ which could refer to its unconventional format on the page or its structure as a book: there is no through-narrative although the lives of some of the characters intersect. In a sense the narrative is Britain itself but not a novelistic narrative that starts on the first page and finishes on the last.

Girl, Woman, Other, as the title implies is about women: Amma, Yazz, Dominique, Bummi, LaTisha, Winsome, along with Carole, Shirley, Penelope, Megan, Hattie and Grace: all British women, mainly black and so all are a consequence of Britain’s colonial past and the book is therefore an example of post-colonial literature which, in a nutshell, is writing that reacts to, usually against, the discourse of colonialism that was seen to perpetuate cultural imperialism.

Primary works in this field were writing against, or back to, colonial texts: Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a post-colonial take on Bronte’s Jane Eyre; J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986) to Danial DeFoe’s  Robinson Crusoe; Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves (1976) to the popular myth of Eliza Fraser; Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) to the colonial notion of the black man notoriously portrayed in Joyce Carey’s Mr. Johnson. In all of these post-colonial rewrites, the native character – the other – is given power denied them in the original colonial text. For example, the protagonist in Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette, a creole, and deals with her early life in Jamaica where she is forced into an arranged marriage to an Englishman; Antoinette is the heroine, she has the voice and the power (although not enough, she is a woman), unlike her literary dopplegänger, the un-named mad women in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre – the first wife of Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Rys gives the mad-woman – a creole – a past, a name, and therefore authority.

Post-colonial writers today are not usually writing back to an existing colonial text*, but Evaristo, and her British contemporaries, Zadie Smith, Andre Levy, et al, are writing back (against) to a cliché-ed perception of what a British person is. They are also writing back to a perception of what a British woman is.

The writing is uncluttered, contemporary, conversational, and unintellectual. However, it has the flavour of journalism. Each woman’s story (and most are interconnected) feels like it was written for an article in a weekend magazine. Prose, and the characters that inhabit it, come to life when they react with each other. There is dialogue here within the prose, unannounced by punctuation but clear, but not much. Fiction works when all three elements, description, narrative and dialogue, are given their full force. This is really my only criticism. Dialogue is the most powerful descriptor of character, but here it is used sparingly, and so I felt some characters are not fully realised. There are some portraits that include intimate detailed scenes and these are the most powerful.

What impressed me was the authorial authority and bravery of writing without the usual writerly conventions: capital letters, full stops. The third person narrative slips easily into the first; the past tense seamlessly into the present without any loss of understandability. The prose has a playful freedom that is refreshing and new. I just would’ve liked to hear the characters talk more.

Evaristo is a self-confessed feminist and has been an anti-racist activist for all of her adult life.

Being the Booker-winning black woman writer in 2019 means that my black British feminist perspective is amplified around the world, and for the first time I am starting to feel heard beyond my community.

However, despite her win and her positive attitude to her win her feminist and anti-racist struggles continue. In early December 2019 over 190,000 people watched a lazy BBC announcer say ” … the Booker Prize was shared between Margaret Atwood and another author…”; he didn’t even bother to use her name and Evaristo tweeted ‘…How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks’ and started a twitter storm causing the BBC to publicly apologise to Evaristo. The Guardian newspaper also caused a furore over a headline referring to Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s eighth, as ‘obscure.’ The headline was quickly re-written. It might seem trivial to some but it is the day-to-day small moments that perpetuate black people as the ‘other’; like the waitress who assumed Evaristo’s white dining companion would be the one to pick up the bill.

Girl, Woman, Other is a deserving winner of the Booker; it’s co-winner Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, less so. You can read what I thought of that book, here.

You can browse and/or buy Girl, Woman, Other and Evaristo’s other novels here.

*However, in 2015 Algerian author, Kamel Daoud, had published The Meursault Investigation, a post-colonial take on Camus’s iconic The Stranger (1942) where the real stranger was refocused as the unnamed Arab that Camus’s protagonist shoots five times on a beach.