reAmon Galgut’s breathtaking new novel traces the decline of a white family as South Africa emerged from apartheid. It all started in 1986, with the death of Rachel, a 40-year-old Jewish mother with three children on a small property outside of Pretoria. The drama of the novel revolves around a promise that her Afrikaner husband, Manie, made to her before his death, heard by their youngest daughter, Amor: that Manie would give their dark maid, Salome, the titles of the annex it occupies. Now that Rachel is dead, Mania has apparently forgotten and doesn’t care to be reminded. Neither did his fanatical family, who viewed Amor’s stubborn insistence that Salome own his house as the kind of talk that “now seems to have infected the whole country.”

Mania’s failure to keep his word falls like a curse as we follow his children through the decades. Four Sections, established at approximately 10-year intervals, from Botha to Zuma to the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the inauguration of Mbeki, each named after a family member who died; even once you understand the importance of section titles, Galgut takes your breath away with her willingness to bring her characters down in such a random fashion. Amor’s bulimic sister, Astrid, unfortunately married to twins, becomes a social climber who, attracted by the proximity of power, cheats on two husbands; their older brother, Anton, lives in the shadow of an unrecognized crime committed as a conscript teenager deployed against black protesters during the violence of the 1980s.

Galgut’s variable tone almost immediately hurts us when we are told, from someone whose sharp comment fails to land, that his disappointment is “palpable, like a little secret.” Its third-person storytelling weaves its way between characters, in the middle of a paragraph or even in the middle of a sentence, diving into the action to detail someone’s secret fears, or how many times (and what). a household’s toilet draws over a two-hour period. Lines of dialogue may appear next to each other, separated by slashes, as if there were more pressing questions. “You get the idea,” said the narrator, almost impatiently.

From Rachel’s ghost to the words of a mourning prayer trying to find her, there is little that is off limits to the narrator, who speaks to an implicit Afrikaner reader whose alleged biases are cited as an apology for accents from the book – at one point we’re told we haven’t heard much from Salomé because we didn’t feel like asking. As suggested, Galgut deploys all the tricks of the book; he is extremely attentive to emotional complexity, but is not above low blows. When Mania’s insufferable sister compares having to leave Rachel’s funeral early (because, excruciatingly, Amor has her first period during the service) to when her husband forgot to record the who-shot-JR ? episode of Dallas, you can almost see Galgut smiling at us next to him on his high perch.

Yet despite all its satirical tendencies, this is not a book that leaves you comfortable in your certainties, especially because Mania’s bad faith is not the only thing that undermines its promise. As the book begins, South African law means that Salome could not own the property even if Mania wanted to; and in the end, the reimagined idea of ​​state justice means that there is a prior historical claim to the land – in other words, Salome could get the house and still be evicted. The final pages dizzily highlight the smell of wish fulfillment in Amor’s stubborn quest for restitution: effect, but double.

The copy of the jacket calls The promise “Literary fiction at its best” – the slogan, it turns out, of the Booker Prize, for which Galgut has been twice shortlisted – for The good doctor and In a strange room. Yes, tips are a cup game, if for no other reason they tend to lower the odds of a book with independent judges, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t be surprised if Galgut does this better. year.

The promise by Damon Galgut is published by Chatto & Windus (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian order your copy on guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply