SOUTH African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise.
This was announced at a ceremony at the BBC Radio Theatre in London on November 3. He wins £50 000 (about R1.04million).
The Promise is a family saga set on a smallholding in Pretoria – Galgut’s home town – and is told over 40 years through four family funerals. The story revolves around a promise made by the family matriarch to a domestic worker that she will be given title to the home she lives in.
Galgut was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for his novel The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room.
The other shortlisted authors were Americans Richard Powers for Bewilderment, Maggie Shipstead for her fabulous Great Circle, Patricia Lockwood for No One is Talking about This; Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam for A Passage North, and British Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed for The Fortune Men.
Chair of the judges Maya Jasanoff described The Promise as 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.
“It manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling, it has great ideas, it’s a book that has a lot to chew on, with remarkable attention to structure and literary style.”
Rebecca Jones, the BBC’s arts correspondent, describes The Promise as “an excellent winner” and “outstanding book”.
“On the one hand it is a gripping saga, following the decline and fall of a white South African family over four decades. It is packed with incident – sex, drugs, shootings – and there is drama, discord and death. But there is also plenty of unexpected comedy to lighten the mood. It made me laugh.
“On the other hand, through the lens of this one family, The Promise also deftly tells the story of South Africa and its troubled transition from apartheid state to multi-racial democracy. So it is rich with layers and yet it is compact, with fewer than 300 pages.”
I thought it was a very bleak tale.
Galgut becomes the third South African to win the prestigious fiction prize, after JM Coetzee (who won it twice, as well as the Nobel Prize for literature) and Nadine Gordimer. – Vivien Horler