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Booker Prize 2021: Everything you need to know about Damon Galgut and his winning novel The Promise

(Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
(Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

South African writer Damon Galgut has triumphed over the likes of Patricia Lockwood and Richard Powers to be crowned the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction.

His luminous novel The Promise follows in the footsteps of 2020 winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and has been praised for its portrayal of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

Here’s everything you need to know…

What’s Galgut’s background?

Damon Galgut with his shortlisted novel In A Strange Room in 2010
Damon Galgut with his shortlisted novel In A Strange Room in 2010 (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Galgut grew up in Pretoria – near where The Promise is set – and now lives in Cape Town. A writer of short stories, plays and novels, he wrote his first book when he was just 17 – and this is his ninth. In an interview with the Booker Prize, Galgut said his literary inspirations include William Faulkner, Patrick White, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett.

This is the third time Galgut has appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist. The Good Doctor – about a rural medic struggling in post-apartheid South Africa – got a nod in 2003, and In A Strange Room (following a South African writer travelling abroad) was nominated in 2010.

Galgut is the third South African to win the Booker Prize, after Nadine Gordimer (for The Conservationist in 1974) and J.M. Coetzee (for Life & Times of Michael K. in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999).

What’s The Promise about?

Like much of Galgut’s work, The Promise studies life in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a sweeping novel taking place over the course of four decades, following the slow demise of the white Swart family on a farm outside Pretoria.

Galgut told the Booker Prize: “No person can stand in for a whole country, especially not this one. But I do feel qualified to say a few things about white South Africa by now. The Swart family is a kind of amalgamation of everything I grew up with in Pretoria, I guess. They’re a mix of English and Afrikaans, and a hodge-podge of creeds and beliefs too. Not unusual for this part of the world.

“But what makes them ‘representative’ isn’t their characters, it’s the times they’re living through. The book is structured around four funerals, each in a different decade, with a different president in power and a different spirit reigning over the land.”

After starting the book, Galgut said he was called away to work on a film script and when he did eventually return to writing The Promise, he added more cinematic elements and shifts in point of view.

Chair of the judges, Maya Jasanoff said of The Promise: “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… 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.”

What did the critics say?

The Promise has won resounding praise, from the Guardian calling it a “stunning” novel, to John Self in The Times proclaiming it “so obviously one of the best novels of the year”.

James Wood wrote in the New Yorker: “Damon Galgut’s remarkable new novel, ‘The Promise’, suggests that the demands of history and the answering cry of the novel can still powerfully converge.”

As is customary whenever the Booker Prize winner is announced, The Promise will likely see a huge surge in sales.

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