For over fifty years, the Booker Prize, a world-famous literary award, has brought fame, fortune and fans to formidable fiction written in English and published in the UK and Ireland. Previous winners of the prestigious award include Margaret Atwood, Bernardine Evaristo (who recently visited St Andrews to promote her new novel Manifesto) and Scottish author Douglas Stuart. However, this year, it was Damon Galgut, the South African novelist and playwright, who took the 2021 winning title with his ninth novel – his first in seven years. The Promise was praised by the judges as “a spectacular demonstration of how the novel can make us see and think afresh.” Their commendation went even further when they compared the novel to the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf –– a plaudit certain to be sweet music to any writer’s ears. Galgut has proven that the third time really is the charm after having been twice shortlisted for the award, first in 2003 for The Good Doctor, then in 2010 for In a Strange Room. During his acceptance speech, the acclaimed author declared earnestly that “it’s changed my life and please know that I am really, profoundly, humbly grateful for this."
The Promise centres its plot around a white South African family, the Swarts, living on a farm during the country’s transition out of apartheid. The story spans four decades and unfolds innovatively through four family funerals. The novel’s title refers to the promise the Swarts once made to give a house and land to a black woman who worked for them her en- tire life. As each decade passes, this promise goes unfulfilled. The themes of privilege, power and broken promises intertwine to create an unforgettable and thought-provoking tale.
During his Booker Prize Q&A, Galgut revealed that “the original idea came from a conversation with a friend who’s the last surviving member of his family.” Having set his novel in his home city Pretoria, he describes The Promise’s location as “a way to exorcise some of my upbringing” and laments that “Pretoria in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was not a great place for anyone to grow up in, even by South African standards.” The novel is evidently close to Galgut’s heart and his win was an event of pure joy, as he declared during his acceptance speech: “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.”
Galgut, born in 1963, grew up in Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. He now lives in Cape Town. Diagnosed with lymphoma aged six, he has revealed that during his period of ill health he “learned to associate books and stories with a certain kind of attention and comfort,” which led to him taking his own pen to the page – literally. Galgut professed in a recent interview with The Guardian that he has “a bit of a fetish around stationery” and initially writes his work in long-hand. Only after
completing two entire drafts will he turn to a computer. He has had an extensive career so far. Starting early, Galgut was impressively just seven- teen when his first novel, A Sinless Season, was published. Two films have been made of his fourth novel The Quarry. Galgut has also penned four plays. The novelist is currently work- ing on a collection of short stories.
This years Booker Prize shortlist included: - A Passage North by Sri Lankan novelist Anuk Arudpragasam. Described as “an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of the devastation of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war,” the novel follows Krishan as he makes the long journey by train from Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral. - No One is Talking About This by American poet, novelist and essayist Patricia Lockwood. The writer’s debut novel, which centres around a social media guru as she travels the world, has been labelled a “sincere and delightfully profane love letter to the infinite scroll, and a meditation on love, language and human connection”
- The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed, the first Somali-British writer to be nominated for the prize. The “gripping” novel, based on the true story of Mahmood Mattan, follows a petty thief in Cardiff who becomes the last man to be hanged there after being wrongfully convicted of murder in 1952. - Bewilderment by American novelist Richard Powers. The tale of an astrobiologist and widowed father who finds a creative way to help his rare and troubled son has been lauded as “deeply moving and brilliantly original.”
- Great Circle by American novelist Maggie Shipstead. The “vivid, soaring” novel traces the lives of a fearless female aviator Marian Graves and the scandalous Hollywood actress Hadley Baxter, who portrays her on screen decades later, as they deliciously intersect.