The novelist takes the £50,000 prize with a ‘strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself’
Damon Galgut is a clear and unsurprising Booker winner
Last modified on Thu 4 Nov 2021 10.45 GMT
Damon Galgut has won the Booker prize for his portrait of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid. The judges praised The Promise as “a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh”, and compared it to the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
This is is the first time Galgut will be walking away with the £50,000 prize, despite having been shortlisted twice before.. The Promise is his ninth novel, and his first in seven years. He becomes the third South African to win the prestigious fiction prize, after JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Through the lens of four sequential funerals, each taking place in a different decade, The Promise follows the Swarts, a white South African family who live on a farm outside Pretoria. The promise of the title is one the Swarts make – and fail to keep over the years – to give a home and land to the black woman who worked for them her whole life.
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?”
“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.”
Galgut, who grew up in Pretoria, where The Promise is set, and now lives in Cape Town, has described the Swart family as “a kind of amalgamation of everything I grew up with in Pretoria”.
“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,” he said in an interview for the Booker prize.
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.”
Galgut said it was important to him that the book was funny. The Promise deals with the “heavy topics” of “funerals, death, decay and dereliction… I don’t think I would have wanted to spend four years writing a book that was pulling me down. Humour opened up a way for me to write about the human side of things, because the book’s not really about the death, it’s about the living.”
The Promise’s structure is formally inventive, with the narration shifting between perspectives; the Booker judges called it an “unusual narrative style [which is] a testament to the flourishing of the novel in the 21st century”. Galgut said while he started writing The Promise “in a far more traditional way”, an intervening job writing a film script helped him realise “that the narrator could behave like a camera, moving in close and then suddenly pulling far back, jumping from one character to another in the middle of a scene, or even a sentence, or following some side-line of action that has nothing to do with plot.
“In film, the point-of-view jumps and changes all the time – why not in a novel? I was very excited by the realisation, because it freed me from the strictures of tradition, and allowed me to give free rein to the cacophony of voices that seem always to be jostling inside, wanting to be heard,” said the author, who was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for The Good Doctor, and in 2010 with In a Strange Room.
The idea to set the novel around four funerals came after a “semi-drunken afternoon, listening to a friend describe the funerals of his parents, brother and sister,” he told the Guardian. “The dramatist in me saw the potential in staging a family history in four acts, each one centred on a burial. And if each act took place in a different decade, with a different president in power, I saw a way to show the nation behind the family, and give a taste of the time.”
Jasanoff said that Galgut’s “searching examination of family, place, and the dysfunctions that connect them” reminded the panel of Faulkner. Woolf, meanwhile, was evoked by his “deft inhabiting of different characters’ consciousnesses” .
“All this he does with a sensibility, artistry, and scope that are entirely his own,” said Jasanoff, who was joined on the judging panel by the writers Horatia Harrod and Chigozie Obioma, the actor Natascha McElhone and the writer and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. “As a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh, The Promise delivers. 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.”
While the judges were unanimous in their decision to award the Booker to Galgut, Jasanoff said that they had “a lot of admiration” for the other five novels on the shortlist: debut American novelist Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, British-Somali author Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men, American Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, Sri Lankan Tamil novelist Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, and American novelist Richard Powers’s Bewilderment. “These were books that we really believe in and that we believe deserve their place on the shortlist,” said Jasanoff. “We definitely gave them all a good examination.”
Bea Carvalho, head of fiction at Waterstones, said: “We are thrilled that Damon Galgut has won this year’s Booker Prize. The Promise is fiction at its most powerful and affecting – it is a true literary masterpiece by an author of immense skill which is destined to become a modern classic. We are delighted that this very well deserved win will introduce many more readers to this hugely important work of fiction, and Galgut’s wonderful writing in general.”
Last year, the Booker prize was won by the Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart for his first novel, Shuggie Bain, based on Stuart’s own experiences of growing up in poverty in 1980s Glasgow.
The Promise by Damon Galgut is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply