Books

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut wins $84K Booker Prize

Damon Galgut's ninth novel, The Promise, was lauded by Booker Prize judges as a "penetrating" book about legacy, family and death.
South African author Damon Galgut poses with his book The Promise during the photo call for authors shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on Oct. 31, 2021. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize.

The £50,000 ($84,905 Cdn) award annually recognizes the best original novel written in the English language and published in the U.K. 

This is Galgut's first Booker Prize win and third time being nominated for the prestigious award.

The Promise charts the lives of a white South African family as they navigate the end of apartheid. The book is divided into four funerals over three decades, reuniting the Swarts and reflecting how shifts in political power have resonated in their lives. An unmet promise to the family's Black maid, Salome, hangs over the living.

"I'm trying to show the passing of time and what it does to the family, what it does to the country, what it does to the politics of the country and what it does to notions of justice," said Galgut.

"If you want to take a message, it would be that mortality is what underpins all of our lives. We're all getting older and everything changes as time moves on."

If you want to take a message, it would be that mortality is what underpins all of our lives.

Maya Jasanoff, jury chair, described the book as a "penetrating" read that "astonished us from the outset."

"On each reading [the jury] 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 Jasanoff in a press release.

"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."

Galgut said he was "stunned" to win the Booker Prize. He's been shortlisted twice before, in 2003 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room.

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

"My nerves have gone numb. I truly didn't expect to be standing here."

The other books that made the shortlist were The Fortune Men by British Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed, A Passage North by Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam, No One Is Talking About This by American writer Patricia Lockwood, Bewilderment by American writer Richard Powers and Great Circle by American writer Maggie Shipstead.

The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist. (Booker Prize)

The Booker Prize has been awarded annually since 1969. Originally only open to writers from the Commonwealth, Ireland and South Africa, the prize expanded its eligibility to include any nationality in 2014.

Last year's winner was Douglas Stuart for his debut novel Shuggie Bain. 

Previous Canadian winners include Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and The Blind Assassin, Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient and Yann Martel for Life of Pi.

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