Damon Galgut: who is The Booker Prize 2021 winner, what is The Promise about, and what are his other books?

The 2021 Booker Prize judges praised Damon Galgut for his ‘spectacular’ South Africa-based novel ‘The Promise’ - but who is he?

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Damon Galgut joined the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Attwood and Hilary Mantel when he won The 2021 Booker Prize on Wednesday (3 November).

The South African was the bookies’ favourite to win the 2021 prize - the first time it has been held in person since Margaret Attwood and Bernardine Evaristo jointly won the prize in 2019.

Mr Galgut’s novel ‘The Promise’ was praised by The Booker Prize judges for being “a penetrating and incredibly well-constructed account” of South Africa at the end of apartheid.

But who is Damon Galgut - and what exactly is his winning novel about?

Here’s what you need to know.

Damon Galgut has become the third South African author to win The Booker Prize (image: The Booker Prizes/PA)

Who is Damon Galgut?

Damon Galgut is a South African playwright and novelist who lives in Cape Town.

Born on 12 November 1963 in the country’s capital Pretoria, Mr Galgut studied drama at the University of Cape Town.

He wrote his first novel - ‘A Sinless Season’ - at the age of 17, although it was not published until 1984.

Since then, he has written nine novels, including ‘The Promise’.

Damon Galgut said he became a writer because he had lymphoma - a cancer that affects the body’s germ-fighting network - as a child, during which time he took comfort in books and stories.

His nomination for The 2021 Booker Prize was actually the third time one of his novels had been shortlisted for the award.

He was shortlisted in 2003 for ‘The Good Doctor’ and in 2010 with ‘In a Strange Room’ but didn’t win on either occasion.

Mr Galgut is the third South African to win The Booker Prize after Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

Damon Galgut’s 2005 novel ‘The Quarry’ has been adapted into two films - the most recent of which came out in 2020 and featured Hollywood star Michael Shannon.

What is ‘The Promise’ about?

‘The Promise’ was Damon Galgut’s first novel in seven years when it was released in April 2021.

It is set during South Africa’s transition out of Apartheid - the racist official government policy in the country for much of the 20th century that racially segregated South Africa’s white minority and black majority.

The novel explores the relationships between members of white family the Swarts through four funerals.

The younger generation is appalled by what their family stands for, including a failed promise to a Black woman - Salome - who has worked for them for her entire life.

Damon Galgut’s The Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Promise’ is set in South Africa at the end of Apartheid (image: The Booker Prizes)

Damon Galgut said the idea for the novel’s structure came about during a semi-drunken afternoon with a friend who was describing a series of funerals.

“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,” he told BBC Radio 4 in an interview before he won the Booker Prize.

“I’m fascinated as a writer by the edge of the map; by things that are not said.”

Upon winning the 2021 Booker Prize, Damon Galgut said: “Let me say this has been a great year for African writing, and 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.”

What did the judges say about ‘The Promise’?

Maya Jasanoff, who was the chair of the 2021 judges, said the novel had astonished the judging panel from the outset.

“[It’s] a penetrating and incredibly well-constructed account of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid and its aftermath,” Ms Jasanoff said.

“On each reading we felt that the book grew. 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.”

Winning The 2021 Booker Prize means Damon Galgut can expect to gain international recognition (image: The Booker Prizes/PA)

Ms Jasanoff said ‘The Promise’ had reminded the judges of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

She added, “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.”

The 2021 Booker Prize judging panel also included: author Horatia Harrod, actor Natascha McElhone, twice Booker-shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

What is the Booker Prize?

The Booker Prize is an annual literary award for the best fiction novel of the year that’s been published in the UK and Ireland.

Authors of any nationality are eligible, so long as they have written the novel in English.

It began in 1969 when food wholesaler Booker - now owned by the supermarket Tesco - sponsored the prize.

The prize is the most high profile literary award in the UK and is coveted by authors and publishers alike.

This is not only down to it giving a work critical recognition, but also because it can boost sales all over the world.

Literature trade publication The Bookseller reported that in the run up to 2021’s Booker Prize announcement, ‘The Promise’ sold 8,884 hardback copies.

It had a 241% leap in sales (1,036 copies) in the week after its Booker shortlist announcement in September.

As well as enjoying higher book sales, the winner of the Booker Prize receives £50,000 and a designer-bound special edition of their book.

Each shortlisted author is given £2,500.

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Set during South Africa’s transition out of Apartheid, the novel explores the relationships between members of white family the Swarts through four funerals over four decades.

The younger generation is appalled by what their family stands for, including a failed promise to a Black woman - Salome - who has worked for them for her entire life.