South African playwright and novelist Damon Galgut wins the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction with The Promise. It’s third time lucky for Damon Galgut as, after being shortlisted in 2003 and 2010, he finally wins the £50,000 prize with his portrait of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid.
The Promise is set in South Africa during the country’s transition out of apartheid, explores the interconnected relationships between the members of a diminishing white family through the sequential lens of four funerals.
The novel is, according to the Booker judges, “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?”
The announcement was made by Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judges, in a ceremony that was broadcast live to a global audience of millions by the BBC.
“We felt among the judges that this book really is a tour de force. It combines an extraordinary story with rich themes – the history of the last 40 years in South Africa – in an incredibly well-wrought package,” said the chair of the Booker judges, historian Maya Jasanoff.
“Before we even started talking about the individual titles, we had a more wide-ranging discussion about what it is we feel makes a book a winner. One of the judges drew a distinction between the very good and the great. For me, The Promise manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling – it’s a book that has a lot to chew on – with remarkable attention to structure and literary style. With each reading of this book, it revealed something new,” Jasanoff said.
The Promise is Galgut’s ninth novel and first in seven years; his debut was published when he was just seventeen.
Galgut is a multi-award-winning author, and two films have been made of his book The Quarry. He grew up in Pretoria, where The Promise is set, and now lives in Cape Town. When asked why he became a writer, he reveals he had lymphoma as a child, during which time he ‘learned to associate books and stories with a certain kind of attention and comfort’.
He is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Receiving the prize, Galgut said “This has been a great year for African writing. 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 come from.”
He added, “I hope people will take African writing a little more seriously now.”