The Booker Prize Winner 2021: Damon Galgut’s The Promise
By Caitlin Evans, Hannah Davenport and Thomas Caldow
On November 3, the Booker Prize Foundation held their awards ceremony for the 2021 competition. Although the audience in attendance was small due to COVID-19 regulations, the ceremony was broadcast live by the BBC, meaning it reached a global audience of millions. Each shortlisted author sat eagerly at the BBC Radio Theatre, but it was Damon Galgut who was finally welcomed to the stage to deliver a winner’s speech after his third nomination for the award. Galgut gladly received the 2021 Booker Prize Award, along with £50,000, for his novel The Promise.
The board of judges who made the final decision, and also attended the ceremony, consisted of Horatia Harrod, Natascha McElhone, Dr Rowan Williams and Chigozie Obioma. The board was chaired by Maya Jasanoff, who made the winning announcement. During her announcement, Jasanoff shed light on the judges' thoughts, saying, “We arrived at a decision after a lot of discussion, and arrived at a consensus around a book that is a real master of form and pushes the form in new ways, that has an incredible originality and fluidity of voice, and a book that's really dense with historical and metaphorical significance.”
The Promise traces the history of the wealthy, white Swarts family across four successive decades as they come to terms with the reality of post-apartheid South Africa. Taking as its focus four separate funerals, Galgut examines the family’s deterioration as they fail to deliver on the novel’s titular promise. The responsibility of the promise – to give their black housekeeper ownership of her own house on their lands – is taken on, and then denied by each of the family members in turn over the intervening decades, as the family’s bigotry ferments under the heat of the South African sun.
With a bold approach to form, which has been compared variously to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, Galgut shapes our understanding of the Swarts’ in shocking, unsettling and truly heart-breaking style. The Promise is a work as strong in execution as it is in its message, making it a more than worthy Booker Prize winner as a result.
The comparisons to Faulkner, however, point to something beyond general similarities in prose and instead to the way both authors examine the moral rot inherent to white, post-apartheid Afrikans and Antebellum societies. The Promise is able to illuminate the scars that still exist within spaces affected by these traumatic histories and remind us how attached our own lives are to these stories. With the last white president of the Apartheid era, FW de Klerk, having died only this month, it is clear how important these stories are in understanding the crimes of the past and coming to terms with the present.
Damon Galgut was born in 1963 in South Africa. He grew up in Pretoria and studied drama at the University of Cape Town. A keen writer from a young age, Galgut had completed two novels by the time he left high school. Galgut’s first piece of writing to win a prize was The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, which won the Central News Agency Literary Award in 1992. Prior to winning the Booker Prize this year, Galgut has been shortlisted twice before. The Good Doctor was shortlisted in 2003 and follows the story of two people in a remote hospital in post-apartheid South Africa. Galgut was shortlisted for the prize again in 2010 with In a Strange Room. When interviewed by The Guardian about his 2021 win, Galgut said “I’m not used to winning – that’s kind of what I’m programmed for, and what I’m braced for.” Galgut writes short stories and is an established playwright as well as novelist. When asked about his influences, Galgut said that his sexuality has prompted his writing to focus on male-oriented relationships. A keen yogi and traveller, Galgut currently lives in Cape Town.
The Booker Prize Foundation has continued their partnership with the BBC, and also collaborated with Rural Media to produce a series of short films inspired by each of the 2021 shortlisted titles. Damon Galgut’s The Promise was adapted into a powerful two-minute video directed by Christine Ubochi and starring actor David Jonsson. You can watch the short film or grab yourself a copy of Galgut’s winning novel by following the links below.