While his wife Rachel is dying, Manie Swart promises to give one of the family houses to Salome, the family’s lifelong black maid. Young Amor Swart overhears The Promise and asks about it after her mother’s death. Manie pretends he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Years later, Manie dies of snakebite. Home for the funeral, Amor mentions the promise to her older siblings, Anton and Astrid, but, since there’s nothing about Salome in Manie’s will, Salome is overlooked again.
Deaths in the Swart family become increasingly violent and self-destructive. Astrid is killed by a carjacker shortly after confessing an affair to her priest. Drunk and desperate, haunted by personal demons, Anton shoots himself out in the brown grass of the expansive Swart farm.
Only Amor is left, and she makes good on her mother’s deathbed wish, giving the now-dilapidated house to Salome along with the money that has been accumulating in the family trust for decades.
The allegory in Damon Galgut’s 2021 Booker-Prize novel is a bit too obvious. It’s a story of Afrikaner decay and the unfulfilled promise of post-apartheid South Africa. But the writing is energetic, the psychological insight keen, sometimes to the point of cruelty. An atmosphere of mystery hovers over the novel, and we’re never entirely sure of what Amor actually overheard.
What makes the novel shine is Amor. Slightly disabled after being struck by lightning as a child, she’s odd, withdrawn, ignored, “podgy.” The scene where she has her first period during her mother’s funeral feels like something Gogol would do to one of his characters.
Amor leaves home to become a nurse, and she’s absent for long stretches of the novel. To everyone’s shock, she grows into a gorgeous young woman, but fades as she reaches middle age because she can’t be bothered to beautify herself.
Her siblings don’t know where she is or how to get in touch; when Anton dies, his widow, Desiree, doesn’t even think to call Amor until a moment before the memorial service. Though often invisible, Amor is the moral center of the novel, an incarnation of calm, undemanding, self-sacrificing kindness, the bearer of the promise.
At the end of the novel, the forty-five-year-old Amor is exhausting herself caring for “the wasted and depleted and maimed”:
Her work, it sometimes seems, is using her up, though she burns the fuel willingly. No need to keep reserves. These are the only bodies she touches now, the lost ones at the side of the road, the ones she cares for in the hospital. Trying to ease their pain. The last of my tenderness, saved up for people I don’t know, who don’t know me. No love left, only kindness, which I maybe stronger. More durable, anyhow. Though I’ve loved a few in my time, when I was able. Who, Amor? Some men, some women, along the way. What does it matter, bodies, names, I am alone now. Hard enough to keep loving yourself (238).
It’s something of a literary miracle that Galgut can make us love Amor even though she does so little and refuses to demand our attention.
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