For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.p.221
At least the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ had a wedding or two. This book has four funerals, held against the backdrop of South African political change, as members of the Swart family die -first mother Rachel, then her husband Manie, then daughter Astrid, son Anton- leaving just the youngest daughter, Amor. It is left to Amor to make good a deathbed promise that her father Manie made to her mother Rachel, thirty years earlier. Rachel had begged her husband to promise that he would give the old Lombard house – just three rooms- to Salome, the domestic servant who has nursed Rachel through a long illness that has stripped her of all dignity. But time has gone on and somehow the house never gets transferred to Salome who continues to work in the house, always present, mostly invisible.
The book is divided into four parts, each named for the protagonist who will die – Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton – although I admit that I didn’t realize that until after I finished. What I was aware of was the corrosive effects of apartheid that did not disappear with its dismantling, in spite of the hope of the Mandela years and twisted by the disillusionment with the politicians who followed him. Corrosive at a macro-scale, but corrosive individually too, as superiority and resentment is turned inwards.
Religion has much to answer for here. The thin-lipped disapproval of Rachel’s late-life conversion back to Judaism by the family steeped in Dutch Reformed Church tradition gives way to the self-serving fanaticism of an evangelical church as Pa (Manie) carves off part of his land to donate to his new church. Astrid, living in a gated community becomes Catholic, a religion which allows confession without contrition, while Anton’s wife enjoys the indulgence of Eastern mystic religion as a hobby. When the promise to give Salome her house is finally fulfilled, it is not through any religious impulse, but because Amor is aware that it has been unjustly withheld by her family, through inattention and obliviousness to this invisible woman who had been so loyal to them for so many decades.
The narrative voice in this book is striking. You’re never really quite sure who is speaking: it is someone familiar with the family and their weaknesses, wry, somewhat judgmental. The narrative swoops from one character to the next, as if it is a camera on a boom, an all-seeing eye. It means that your focus can switch from scene to scene without any warning which is jarring at first. At times the narrator ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by turning around to address you, the reader. It’s a strange, but effective technique.
Deaths occur suddenly in this book, and they are almost skated over. The death itself is not as important as its implications for the people who are left. Meanwhile, the unfulfilled promise hangs over the family, almost like a curse. It is denied for too long, and then when it is finally conceded, it is almost a poisoned chalice. Salome’s son, most certainly, does not show the gratitude that other members of the Swart family might have expected. The land and the now-derelict house are now subject to a land claim under land redistribution, and Salome may well lose again.
I was rather surprised when this book made the shortlist for the Booker Prize, I must confess. In many ways, it’s a multi-generational family story, although it is strengthened by being placed against the political background. It’s real strength, for me, is the narrative voice. I wonder if its presence as a non-American book in a shortlist dominated by American writers (just as many predicted) might weigh in its favour.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: It is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.
After my beloved spouse watched The Promise, we had an intense discussion about elderly parents, adult children, wills, deaths and expectations across the family. He thought the issues were raised and handled very well in The Promise, but since the the conflicts happen even in lovely families, I would be quite worried to have The Discussion with my adult sons.