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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2022



Much More than a Dwelling: The Multi-Layered Meanings of the House in Galgut’s The Promise

Costanza Mondo, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures and Modern Cultures, University of Turin, Italy



In Galgut’s varied literary production, the theme of the house features frequently, either because of its meaningful presence or because of its noticeable absence. For this reason, and because the theme of the house is important in South African history, it is interesting to analyse how Galgut tackled this theme in his latest novel, the 2021-Booker-prize-winning novel The Promise. This paper aims to show the multiple readings of the house. By making reference to passages from the novel, I will demonstrate that the house affects not only specific characters, but also feelings and higher concepts such as kinship and life. In addition, I claim that the house transcends its physical boundaries to embrace a higher dimension, regarding South Africa and even the language of the novel.

Keywords: House, Damon Galgut, Kinship, South Africa


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
(‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas)



In the resplendent, vibrant panorama of South African literature, Damon Galgut is a particularly interesting and intriguing author. Thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Pretoria-born writer was eventually awarded it in 2021 thanks to his brilliant novel The Promise. Filled with family feuds, lies and the flux of generations, his latest work hinges on a house and the events regarding it. Notable for his unique use of language and masterly tackling of themes, in his kaleidoscopic works Galgut frequently deals with the theme of the house, that figures prominently or even silently.

For instance, In A Strange Room is impressive because the theme of home is paradoxically present in its glaring and puzzling absence. Generously hosted by his friends in his own city where he has no fixed residence, the main character of the novel incessantly travels to far-flung destinations, spinning a fil rouge that becomes entwined with the routes of the many meaningful people that he meets on his journeys. O’Dwyer underlines that in the final part of the novel: “He is an established author who travels to India to write. He stays in the same village, in the same room, in the same hotel. Each year, he meets the same people” (6). Indeed, the previously-compulsive-traveller admits that he became aware that he was forming connections with the place, giving money to a sick man here, calling the vet to attend to a stray dog there, setting up a web of habits and social reflexes that he usually travels to escape. (Galgut, In a Strange Room 130)
While some critics have been interested in the novel’s epigraph, which underlines the character’s estrangement (de Villiers 134), others have emphasized his “constant re-location” (Jacobs 102). Even the staccato structure of the novel—consisting of three stories connected by the same character in different phases of his life—suggests a sense of instability and precariousness. To a certain extent, the house also features in The Impostor, where the house at Gondwana takes on “a surreal quality” and evokes memories (Kostelac 49).

This paper postulates that the theme of the house has multi-layered readings in The Promise, set in South Africa, a country where the image of the house is intertwined with the country’s painful history. Since the black South Africans had to live in the townships and not in the cities, the house was used as an active tool to discriminate. Furthermore, the house was a fundamental dimension for the colonizers in South Africa who started to re-create their ideas of home through “new Londons, new Bremens, new Englands, new Yorks” (Kunene, “Some Aspects” 13). As a result, it is interesting to analyse how a contemporary author has employed the house as a symbol and the different meanings he has endowed it with.

The Different Layers of Meaning in the House

Since Galgut studied drama at university (Babb 1), one might expect the Swarts’ house to be only a carefully-wrought setting for their lives. However, the house has many other readings from the very beginning of the novel. One of the first descriptions of the house readers are presented with is made by Amor, who observes it from the outside:

From the top of the koppie she can see the whole front of the house, all the windows on display […]. She is looking at only one window, upstairs, third from the left […] And she can see somebody moving around in there. A female figure, bustling about. (Galgut, The Promise 18)

In this description of a ‘toy building,’ the gradual zooming in on the woman in the room is particularly thought-provoking because it introduces the character of Salomè. The Swarts’ black servant is usually ignored by her employers and pads around the house almost like a ghost. While Amor—outside the house—progressively brings her presence into focus, others inside the house seldom acknowledge her, even after Manie’s funeral: “for she was there too, why was it not mentioned before, yes, she was present, almost but not quite in the front, standing behind the family” (Galgut, The Promise 146), as the ironic narrator highlights.

Apart from mediating Salome’s visibility or invisibility, the house perfectly epitomizes the difference of social class between her and the Swarts. While discussing novels reckoning with the politics of place in South African literature, Milazzo argues that their writers keep addressing racial oppression through the depiction of the “differential spatial and affective locations for black and white characters” (135). This also happens in the present novel. While readers can guess that the Swarts’ house is spacious and covered in windows (as Amor mentions in her description) Salomè’s house is depicted later on as “A crooked little building, something out of true at its centre. Three rooms, concrete floor, broken windows” (Galgut, The Promise, 142) and is “barely noticeable” (128) from the ‘koppie.’ As if that were not enough, while the Swarts’ house is always referred to as such, Salomè’s house is called ‘the Lombard place,’ after its previous residents. As the cynical narrator—in my opinion sharing Galgut’s perspective on realistic cynicism (Galgut, “Ambiguous Territories” 140)—maintains, “Some names stick, some don’t” (Galgut, The Promise 21).

However, I claim that the symbology of the house rises to involve kinship as well. When an adult Amor asks for the first time to grant Salomè the ownership of the Lombard place, her aunt Marina shrilly wails that “Whatever your principles may be, you’re supposed to stand with your own people!” (Galgut, The Promise 149). Thus, the house opens up a chasm between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in other words, white- and black-skinned people) and is kinship-related. This has an important implication for the development of the plot: from that moment, it is as if Amor took Salomè’s side, almost imitating her role model. Amor’s separation from her relatives is evident throughout the plot, but is particularly noticeable in the scene regarding South Africa’s victory at the World Cup, topped by Mandela’s appearance at the prize-giving—“that’s something. That’s religious” (Galgut, The Promise 151). In its symbolism and the enthusiastic reaction of national pride it triggers in the Swarts, the victory shares similarities with the overture of the London Olympic Games portrayed in Middle England by Jonathan Coe: “the Queen! James Bond! the Union Jack” (133). While the Swarts are cavorting with joy, though, Amor is nowhere to be seen, but her relatives nastily say: “Well, leave her then. If she doesn’t want to be part of it” (Galgut, The Promise 151). Throughout the plot, this recurring expression always refers to Amor, further underlining her alienation, a typical feature of Galgut’s protagonists (Jacobs 91). Not only does Amor sever ties with her family, but she also becomes a nurse and does for her patients what Salomè did for her dying mother: “Trying to ease their pain” (Galgut, The Promise 257). However, this turns out to be an insufficient kind of atonement, since, while Salomè’s kindness towards Amor’s bed-ridden mother has always been ignored, in a passage of the novel Amor is called ‘Saint Amor’ by her brother Anton, who acknowledges her spirit of sacrifice.

Much as Amor would prefer to stay away from home, the sudden deaths of her relatives force her to return in concentric circles to a house as solid as the promises in the novel are flimsy. A far cry from a blissful and heart-warming place, the Swarts’ house is imbued with solitude. Although it is as clear as day that the Swarts are a divided family, paradoxically this becomes even more visible at night, when they are locked in their rooms with different dreams described by the invasive narrator. Moreover, Astrid, who suffers from bulimia, is afraid that “her mind can be secretly read by people around her, or that life is an elaborate performance in which everybody else is acting and she alone is not” (Galgut, The Promise 24). Thus, she introduces the Renaissance concept of the ‘theatrum mundi’—which will be commented upon later—and adds horrible secrets to the isolation of the house—a Macbeth’s Inverness Castle in its own right, at least in terms of atmosphere.

Taking a step further, I claim that a local-global perspective on the house can be observed. Stifled by the petty squabbles and snide comments in her family, Amor decides to move to another city. When she comes back for the funeral, she has visited different places and the space of her childhood seems more restricted: “The whole picture seems much smaller to her than the way she remembers […] Yet the colours pierce her” (Galgut, The Promise 128). The local-global dimensions are then conflated together, in that the house and the surrounding lands take on the hues of a theatrical setting. As Anton cries:

Foolish old earth […] Never misses a show. How can you bear it, you ancient tart, giving the identical performance again and again, evenings and matinees, while the theatre crumbles around you, the lines in the script unchanging, to say nothing of the make-ups, the costumes, the extravagant gestures…Tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that… (Galgut, The Promise 248)

In My Antonia, Willa Cather described the harsh Nebraska as “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” (6), whereas Anton’s opinion on the surrounding land seems extremely negative. Further touching on the theme of the theatrum mundi brought up by Astrid—a Renaissance concept according to which the world is like a theatrical performance with everyone playing their part—Anton associates his house and the land surrounding it to the insignificance of his life. Again though, I maintain that the house is more than a setting, since it seems to have a life of its own. In Atonement the bed-ridden Emily Tallis is able to tell what happens in the house by intercepting every little noise with “a sixth sense, a tentacular awareness” (McEwan 66): similarly in The Promise readers can hear the house “making tiny movements, sunlight stalking through those rooms, wind rattling the doors, expanding here, contracting there” (Galgut, The Promise 78) as if it were alive.

Alive or not, the house apparently follows the downward spiral plaguing the Swart family. Although the Swarts do not share the riches of Mann’s Buddenbrooks, their fall (further highlighted by the generational succession) is equally inexorable and mirrored by the state of their house. After Anton has taken possession of the house, its outward appearance and its interior furnishings exude decay, not to mention the lands which have been partly taken over by squatters and gobbled up by the rapacious Alwyn Simmers after Manie’s death. At first, Anton wants Amor to take pity on him because of its condition, as if the house could become his inanimate doppelgänger, revealing the cracks of his unsatisfying life. In her essay, Concilio has demonstrated that fridges can become anthropomorphized and that humans can be reified in turn (240). In a similar vein, this process happens for Anton and the house as well.

In his essay, Penfold maintains that the South African landscape epitomizes its lack of openness (995), whereas in this paper I would like to consider the house and its residents as exemplifying the country itself. In a sense, this relationship is hinted at from the beginning, when readers are told that beyond Marina’s and Ockie’s house a “diorama of white South Africa” (Galgut, The Promise 6) is visible. If we add Salomè’s subdued condition, the black component of the apartheid period is only marginally (alas) inserted in this diorama—a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. At first Salomè is prevented by law from inheriting her house, but her situation does not change after the abolition of apartheid, thus showing the deep root of prejudice. Instead, reification (or rather commodification) looms large even in this context, since Desirée angrily suggests Anton get rid of Salomè and Anton in turn callously considers dismissing the old family driver Lexington: “no need for that expense anymore” (Galgut, The Promise 154). Clearly, equality is a long way off. Incredibly important to healing South African society, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is mentioned in the novel, even though forgiving the past is difficult. In order to show the importance of houses and lands in the larger context of South African history, it is worth mentioning that the Native Land Act of 1913 allocated 10% of the total land area of South Africa to Africans, although they amounted to 80% of the population (Mzamane 190). The persisting distinction between black- and white-skinned people transforms the eventual keeping of the promise into something of an “anticlimax” (“The Promise” 30), rather than a pivotal moment. As Salomè’s son angrily snaps: “Everything you have, white lady, is already mine. I don’t have to ask” (Galgut, The Promise 286). This final confrontation embitters the keeping of the promise and further shows that overcoming the past is extremely difficult. Therefore, in this sense, the house and the money Amor gives Salomè play an important role in the process aimed at healing South African society.

Before concluding my analysis, I would like to underline another example of house to be found inside the very texture of the novel, namely in the language used. It must be pointed out that language has always been a controversial issue for African intellectuals (Kunene, “Problems in” 32)—and, more in general, in Postcolonial literature, together with the theme of home (Newns 119). Indeed, language frequently denotes hostility, as one of the characters of By the Sea by Gurnah realises when he looks up the word ‘black’ in the dictionary: “I felt despicable and disheartened, smeared by the torrent of vituperation” (Gurnah 72). Heidegger contended that “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins” [“Language is the house of being,” my translation] (9). Keeping in mind his statement while reading the novel, I claim that its language can be seen as another house which represents the characters’ true being, their characteristics and shortcomings as a conflictual family. More often than not, what they say is absolutely inappropriate to the situation they find themselves in, such as Manie’s coma: “But he isn’t dead, Astrid cries, shivering. Why does everyone keep saying he is?” (Galgut, The Promise 98). Other times, language tampers with carefully-wrought speeches, as it happens with Alwyn Simmers’ perfectly orchestrated pun, which becomes garbled when he utters it at the end of Manie’s funeral. Even personal names are not immune from mistakes, since Simmers, quite comically, always gets Anton’s name wrong: “Come now, Andrew, pray with me,” (Galgut, The Promise 121) thereby showing his absolute lack of interest in him. Exactly like Anton’s dejected and unkempt house, language is therefore another building that reflects the characters.


In conclusion, the theme of the house is endowed with countless meanings intersecting on multiple levels of analysis and affecting the very language of the novel. Visibility, kinship, life and feelings are encompassed and represented in interesting ways. The novel’s ending seems to further strengthen this interpretation. After having given Salomè the ownership of her house, Amor is caught in a sudden downpour, in a sense echoing the “snow […] faintly falling […] upon all the living and the dead” in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (205)—although the rainfall is not oppressive but rather could symbolize a newfound peace, deriving from the keeping of the promise in the title. The denouement is reached when Amor sits on the roof of the house, thereby giving readers a new perspective on her home, possibly gazing at the future with her sight unhindered by obstacles and unkept promises.



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