Category Archives: Booker Prize Nomination

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

2021, 293 p

SPOILER ALERT

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.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

2021, 336 p.

One of the big existential questions that we all grapple with at some stage is ‘Why am I here?’ An associated, and equally fascinating question is ‘What if I wasn’t?’ Light Perpetual takes this question, starting off with the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. Spufford fictionalizes five of these children: sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. A different book might have gone backwards, tracing who the children were and how they came to be there, but Spufford takes a different approach. Instead, he drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.

The book is told in chunks of time, dated from when the bomb fell (but not on them). So we have five years on in 1949; twenty years on in 1964 (Beatles time); thirty-five years to 1979 (Thatcher time); fifty years to 1994 (Cool Brittania); sixty five years on in 2009 (post-GFC). Each of these chunks features the five children separately. Rather neat, really: five times five. It’s like a ‘Seven-up’ series on the page, with less regular check-ins and a smaller number of subjects. As such, it deals mental illness, promiscuity, wealth-acquisition, marriages, divorces, Right and Left wing politics, success, education, physical illness and decline…. all the sorts of things raised during the Seven-Up series. Nothing happens as such, although each life (for good or ill) is lived either as a series of transformations, or by putting one foot in front of the other. Decisions are made or not made, options open up or shrivel away.

I must confess that it took me more than half the book to get the characters established securely in my mind. I had to go back to the previous section to find the character there to refresh my memory before launching into the next time frame, and in this regard a table of contents at the start would have been really useful to locate the time shifts in the book.

The treatment of time and chance reminded me a lot of Kate Atkinson’s work, a writer I really enjoy. My library, which persists in labelling books by genre, has designated it as Science Fiction but it’s a far more human book than that.

It is the writing, particularly at the start and the finish of the book that lifts it above the rather quotidian, eventually inconsequential events of human life that it describes. The scene where the bomb drops is like a freeze-frame, minutely examined- really excellent, challenging writing. The middle sections, like their subject matter, are more human and less complex. The final section of the book, as our subjects face their own mortality, becomes more abstract again in its reflection on permanence and change, although this time it is infused with familiarity and even affection.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: It has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library