South African writer Damon Galgut wins 2021 Booker Prize for 'The Promise'

Winner was shortlisted for the coveted prize in 2003 and 2010

Damon Galgut with his book 'The Promise' at the Royal Festival Hall in London last Sunday. Photo: PA
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South African novelist Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction with The Promise.

Galgut, 57, has won the award in his third appearance on the shortlist after making the cut in 2003 and 2010.

He follows in the footsteps of other South African winners Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, and is the first winner from the country since 1999.

“It’s taken a long while to get here and now that I have, I kind of feel that I shouldn’t be here," Galgut said after the announcement.

“This could just as easily have gone to any of the other amazing, talented people on this list and a few others who aren’t.

“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 that I’m part of.

“Please keep listening to us, there’s a lot more to come.”

US historian Maya Jasanoff, who led the judging panel, said: “We felt among the judges this was a book that really is a tour de force.

“It combines an extraordinary story, rich themes, [and] the history of the last 40 years in South Africa in an incredibly well-wrought package.”

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.”

The Promise is set in Pretoria, where the author grew up, and takes place against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition out of apartheid.

It tells the story of the declining Swart family, who are white farmers, through four funerals.

Galgut previously told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row the idea for the novel’s structure came to him while he was drinking with a friend, who described a series of funerals to him.

“It occurred to me that it would be a novel and interesting way of approaching a family saga," he said.

“If the only thing you had was a small window that opened on to these four funerals and you didn’t get the full trajectory of the family story, as a reader you’d have to fill in those gaps yourself.

“I’m fascinated as a writer by the edge of the map, by things that are not said.”

Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, writer Horatia Harrod, actress Natascha McElhone and twice Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma were also on the judging panel.

Galgut was announced as the winner of the prize in a ceremony that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC News Channel.

He receives £50,000 after his work won from five other shortlisted books.

They are: No One is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood; Richard Powers’s Bewilderment; Maggie Shipstead's novel Great Circle; Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North; and Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men.

Galgut, who now lives in Cape Town, wrote his first novel at the age of 17 and previously won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in 2015 for Arctic Summer, while his book The Quarry has been made into two films.

Douglas Stuart, who won the prize last year with Shuggie Bain, was interviewed by the Duchess of Cornwall during the ceremony.

The Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969, is open to writers of any nationality whose work is written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

Updated: November 04, 2021, 4:41 AM