Damon Galgut wins Booker Prize with ‘tour de force’ novel The Promiseon November 3, 2021 at 8:01 pm

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South African author Damon Galgut wins the prestigious literary award at the third attempt.

Damon Galgut with The Promise

Image source, Getty Images

South African author Damon Galgut has won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction at the third attempt for his novel The Promise.

Galgut, who was previously nominated in 2003 and 2010, picked up the £50,000 prize at a ceremony on Wednesday.

The Promise is his ninth novel and follows the decline of one South African family over four decades from the apartheid era to the present day.

The chair of the judges, Maya Jasanoff, described it as “a tour de force”.

“It combines an extraordinary story, rich themes and the history of the last 40 years of South Africa in an incredibly well-wrought package,” she said.

“It manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling, it has great ideas, it’s a book that has a lot to chew on, with remarkable attention to structure and literary style.”

The title, The Promise, refers to a pledge that the white family’s black maid would be given the house she inhabits and the land it stands on.

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Analysis by Rebecca Jones, BBC arts correspondent

The Promise by Damon Galgut is an excellent winner. In my view it is an outstanding book and it is hard to disagree with the critic who said: “This is so obviously one of the best novels of the year.”

Why? On the one hand it is a gripping saga, following the decline and fall of a white South African family over four decades. It is packed with incident – sex, drugs, shootings – and there is drama, discord and death. But there is also plenty of unexpected comedy to lighten the mood. It made me laugh.

On the other hand, through the lens of this one family, The Promise also deftly tells the story of South Africa and its troubled transition from apartheid state to multi-racial democracy. So it is rich with layers and yet it is compact, with fewer than 300 pages.

It is also technically superb. There is an invisible narrator, who acts like a film camera. So you move fluidly from one location to another, from one character’s point of view to another, sometimes within the same paragraph or page. At one point we fly into someone’s dreams. At another we dive into the feelings of a pack of hyenas and even a family dog.

Damon Galgut nearly died from cancer as a young child. In 2010 he told me it was the central, cataclysmic event of his life. Books provided comfort during his illness. When he finally recovered he was left with the overwhelming need to write. Now he has won one of the biggest prizes in publishing.

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The Promise begins in 1986 and revisits the family over the course of four funerals, each in a different decade and at a different point in the nation’s journey.

“What really appealed to me is how you could show in each little snapshot how the same cast of characters is changing as time goes by,” the author told BBC Radio 4’s Open Book earlier this year.

Galgut, 57, grew up in Pretoria and told BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline that the title also refers to the unfulfilled promise in South Africa after apartheid, the policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority government.

Booker Prize shortlisted fiction authors Patricia Lockwood, Richard Powers, Nadifa Mohamed, Damon Galgut, Maggie Shipstead and Anuk Arudpragasam

Image source, Reuters

“I think a great many of us had high expectations of the future,” Galgut said. “And I think also a great many of us feel that those hopes have been dashed. That little piece of land is only one wasted promise, really.”

The Promise was widely praised when it was published in the UK in June, with The Guardian calling it “stunning”, The Sunday Times describing it as “bleak but superbly narrated” and The Financial Times declaring it “a complex, ambitious, brilliant work”.

The other nominated books were:

  • Anuk Arudpragasam – A Passage North
  • Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This
  • Nadifa Mohamed – The Fortune Men
  • Richard Powers – Bewilderment
  • Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle

Last year’s Booker Prize was won by Douglas Stuart for Shuggie Bain. The Scottish author said the victory “changed everything for me”, with the novel shooting up best-seller lists as a result and now being adapted into a TV series.

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