A photo of author Damn Galgut in greyscale, with his book The Promise overlaid next to him on an orange and red ombre background..
A photo of author Damn Galgut in greyscale, with his book The Promise overlaid next to him on an orange and red ombre background..

With each novel he writes, Damon Galgut seems to inch – nay, bound – closer to the echelon of writers whose names are spoken in the kind of reverent tones reserved for legends of literature.

And rightly so: all five of the South African writer’s novels, reaching back to 2003’s The Good Doctor, have won or been shortlisted for a major literary prize. His latest, this month’s The Promise, is his third novel to be nominated for the Booker Prize. Hailed by peers like Tessa Hadley, Colm Tóibín, and Edmund White (who called Galgut “one of the world’s great writers”), Galgut’s latest is a tale of family drama, depicting the downfall of a white South African whose promise to their black housekeeper – of her own property, her own land – remains unfulfilled. Deft and innovatively narrated, it’s a nuanced, acutely written novel more than worthy of its longlisting for the 2021 edition of the Booker Prize.

Here, we asked Galgut to speak on the origins of his latest work, from the family dynamics to the “cinematic” inspiration behind the novel’s narrator – not to mention the importance of “ambushing” your audience.

What compelled you to tell this story now?

It’s the burning question at the centre of South African life: who owns the land? Obviously that issue goes back to the day the first Europeans set foot here. But in truth I’m somewhat surprised that this aspect of the novel has overshadowed everything else, because for me it was more of a background theme, a recurring motif I could work through the four sections of the book. I was, I am, much more interested in the family and their internal dynamics. Soap opera over politics any day! Aesthetics over ideology!

The narrative voice inhabits the minds of almost all of the book’s characters at various points. Why did that feel crucial to telling this story?

It became crucial, but didn’t start out that way. In fact, I began with a much more formal, traditional approach, but that quickly became frustrating. Then by chance I put the book aside to do a couple of drafts of a film script, and that diversion changed the way I saw my novel. I realised that there was another way to deal with the narrative; that I could move fluidly in and out of scenes in the same way a movie camera does.

I carried over a few other conventions from cinema too, such as cutting from one character to another without a break, or moving away from the main action to some arbitrary event happening on the sidelines. The voice of the book also moves forward continuously, without a break, in the same way a film runs on to its end. All of this was liberating and exciting, and cause for great anxiety.

What was the hardest part of writing The Promise?

There was no section of the book more challenging than any other, since it’s not a plot-driven novel. You’re seeing the same family at different points in time over four decades, and a lot happens in the spaces between. What became the real challenge was how to hold a reader’s attention, given the segmented structure.

It seemed to me that language was the answer. The experience of reading it had to be pleasurable on the simplest, most immediate level, which is to say through the use of words. So a kind of poetry was required. And in a more secondary way, the structure had to be continually surprising.

I read an interview with Tom Stoppard a long time ago which kept coming back to me during the writing, in which he spoke about ambushing the audience. I understood that to mean you have to continually wrong-foot your reader, by never going where it seems you might. Even on the level of a sentence, you should try to end up somewhere unpredictable. Of course, it has to be credible and authentic as well as surprising, and that ain’t so easy.

Your novel addresses the reader with implied knowledge of them. Was this to implicate them in the story?

I come from a background in theatre, and the breaking of the fourth wall is a device by now quite well established. It has the effect of breaking the agreement between audience and players that this is somehow ‘real’ and should be studied through glass. For some reason, the novel has always lagged in this department, or so it seems to me. The convention is that if you use a third-person voice, it should be steady in its tone and not rock the artificiality of the edifice. Well, why?

I started to play with the narrative voice and became delighted with the possibilities it opened up. I wanted to stretch its range, from calm scene-setting to direct accusation. Part of ambushing the audience! Because most readers expect to be lulled into a descriptive paralysis, it might be jarring for some, but I like books that require a bit of work from the reader, too. It helps to think of the narrator as a character in the book, who’s never named but always present.


What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

  • The Promise

  • Discover the Booker Prize-shortlisted literary masterpiece of a family in crisis.

    'Astonishing' Colm Tóibín

    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 fluidly 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.

    'Gorgeous and pleasurable' Tessa Hadley

    'The most important book of the last ten years' Edmund White

    'Simply: you must read it' Claire Messud

  • Buy the book

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