One reading of this Booker Prize winning novel by Damon Galgut (Chatto & Windus, $32.99) is that it’s an absorbing saga about loss that upends a dysfunctional Afrikaner family. When Rachel Swart dies of cancer, her husband, Marnie, and three children are afflicted by grief in different ways. Only the youngest daughter, Amor, cares about her mother’s dying wish – that Salome, the black domestic servant, should receive full ownership of the annexe she occupies on the Swart family farm.
Nobody else pays any attention: for one thing, it’s the time of apartheid and black people are not legally allowed to own property in white areas. And so the promise is buried along with Rachel, only to be unearthed decades later when subsequent family deaths force the Swarts to reconvene for new rituals of mourning.
Galgut’s a wonderfully fluent narrator, moving between accounts of each character in prose that’s free from quotation marks. It’s as though the story is being narrated from the vantage point of a shapeshifting ghost who briefly possesses every person.
But then the story itself starts to shapeshift, turning into an allegory of larger historical realities. For example, only Salome’s thoughts remain subdued, almost hidden, underlining the idea that she has been silenced by other more powerful people who control her destiny.
At the same time, the reader gradually becomes aware that the Swart farm is not just a family property but standing in for contested land and even an entire contested country.
Galgut handles these huge themes with an impressive lightness of touch. In his sobering account, white South Africans cannot inherit this land, and do not deserve to. As in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace – another masterful farm novel – the only appropriate role seems to be one of atonement.