Damon Galgut wins 2021 Booker Prize for 'The Promise'

Saturday November 13 2021

Damon Galgut, the author of The Promise. PHOTO | AFP | MATHINUS BASSON


South African author Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Promise.

Accepting the prize, Galgut, said: “This has been a great year for African writing, and I’d like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard, from the remarkable continent I'm part of. Please keep listening to us, there's a lot more to come.”

The prize comes with £50,000 ($67,521), a designer-bound edition of his book, and the £2,500 ($3,376) given to each shortlisted author.

The Promise astonished us from the outset as a penetrating and incredibly well-constructed account of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid and its aftermath. On each reading, we felt that the book grew. With an almost deceptive narrative economy, it offers moving insights into generational divides; meditates on what makes a fulfilling life — and how to process death, and explores the capacious metaphorical implications of “promise” in relation to modern South Africa,” said Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judges.

The announcement was made in London on November 3.

Apartheid saga


The Promise, published by Chatto and Windus, PRH in 2021, is set in South Africa during the transition from apartheid. It is a saga told with brutal emotional truths about a diminished white South African family and troubled land. The story explores the interconnected relationships between the members through the sequential lens of four funerals.

Haunted by an unmet promise, the Swart family loses touch after the death of their matriarch. Adrift, the lives of the three siblings move separately through the uncharted waters of South Africa.

The novel is an epic drama that unfurls against the unrelenting march of national history, sure to please current fans and attract many new ones.

“Galgut’s searching examination of family, place and the dysfunctions that connect them reminded us of William Faulkner. His deft inhabiting of different characters’ consciousnesses evokes Virginia Woolf. All this he does with a sensibility, artistry, and scope that are entirely his own.

"As a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh, The Promise delivers. This is a book about legacies, those we inherit and those we leave, and in awarding it this year’s Booker Prize we hope it will resonate with readers in decades to come,” Jasanoff said.

The Promise is Galgut’s ninth novel and first in seven years; his debut was published when he was just 17. He is a three-time Booker Prize-shortlisted writer. The author, who lives in Cape Town, was previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. His 2005 novel The Quarry has been adapted into two films.

In 2013, Galgut was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He grew up in Pretoria and now lives in Cape Town. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.

The Promise was described by John Self in The Times as "so obviously one of the best novels of the year… a book that answers the question 'what is a novel for'?”

Galgut beat five authors on the 2021 shortlist: Anuk Arudpragasam (A Passage North); Patricia Lockwood (No One is Talking About This); Nadifa Mohamed (The Fortune Men); Richard Powers (Bewilderment); and Maggie Shipstead (Great Circle).

Galgut won the 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for Arctic Summer and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for The Good Doctor, among others.

Galgut follows in the footsteps of fellow South Africans, 1974 joint winner Nadine Gordimer and double winner J. M. Coetzee (1983 and 1999) in winning the Booker Prize for Fiction.