Novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise.
The news was announced on Wednesday (3 November) during a ceremony in London.
The South African writer had been shortlisted for the third time this year, after being a finalist in 2003 and 2010.
The Promise is a family saga set in Pretoria, where Galgut grew up, told through a series of four funerals.
Galgut, who lives in Cape Town, told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in an interview last week that he was inspired to try out this narrative structure during a “semi-drunken afternoon” with a friend who shared “a whole series of funeral anecdotes”.
“It occurred to me that it would be a novel and interesting way of approaching a family saga,” Galgut said. “If the only thing you had was a small window that opened on to these four funerals and you didn’t get the full trajectory of the family story, as a reader you’d have to fill in those gaps yourself. I’m fascinated as a writer by the edge of the map, by things that are not said – implied, suggested.”
Maya Jasanoff, the chair of the 2021 judges, said The Promise “astonished” this year’s judges “as a penetrating and incredibly well-constructed account of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid and its aftermath”.
“On each reading we felt that the book grew,” Ms Jasanoff added. “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.”
In addition to Ms Jasanoff, the 2021 judging panel included writer and editor Horatia Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma; and writer and former Archbishop Rowan Williams.
The Promise is Galgut’s ninth novel, and his first in seven years. Galgut was previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 with In a Strange Room. His 2005 novel The Quarry has been adapted into two films.
As the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, Galgut will receive £50,000 and a designer-bound edition of his book. All shortlisted authors, including the winner, were given £2,500.
This year’s winner was chosen from 158 novels published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021. Joining Galgut on the shortlist were Anuk Arudpragasam for A Passage North; Patricia Lockwood for No One Is Talking About This; Nadifa Mohamed for The Fortune Men; Richard Powers for Bewilderment; and Maggie Shipstead for Great Circle.