Damon Galgut’s The Promise was named winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction on 3 November 2021.
The announcement made by Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judges, was the culmination of a 45- minute ceremony held in partnership with the BBC at Broadcasting House’s Radio Theatre. It was broadcast live to a global audience of millions as an audio program on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, and a visual experience on BBC iPlayer, the BBC News Channel and BBC Arts Digital.
Hosted by the BBC’s Samira Ahmed, the ceremony featured high-profile names from the prize’s past and present. All six of this year’s shortlisted authors attended from all over the world. Ben Okri, 30 years on from his historic Booker win, shared his reflections on how that moment changed his career. The 2020 winner Douglas Stuart spoke with HRH The Duchess of Cornwall at Clarence House about his literary inspirations and life-changing win, before presenting Damon Galgut with his prize.
The Promise (Chatto & Windus, PRH), set in South Africa during the country’s transition out of apartheid, explores the interconnected relationships between the members of a diminishing white family through the sequential lens of four funerals. Galgut told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row during his Booker Book Club interview last week that the idea for the novel’s structure came to him over a semi-drunken afternoon during which a friend described a series of funerals.
He said, “It occurred to me that it would be a novel and interesting way of approaching a family saga. 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.”
It is Galgut’s ninth novel and first in seven years; his debut was published when he was just 17. When asked why he became a writer, he told the Guardian he had lymphoma as a child, during which time he “learned to associate books and stories with a certain kind of attention and comfort.” The author, who lives in Cape Town, 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.
Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judges, says, “The Promise astonished us from the outset 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. 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.
“Galgut’s searching examination of family, place, and the dysfunctions that connect them reminded us of William Faulkner. His deft inhabiting of different characters’ consciousnesses evokes Virginia Woolf. All this he does with a sensibility, artistry, and scope that are entirely his own. 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.”
Jasanoff was joined on the 2021 judging panel by 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 was described by John Self in The Times as ‘so obviously one of the best novels of the year… a book that answers the question “what is a novel for?” With a simple: “This!”’ William Skidelsky wrote in the Financial Times that it was ‘a complex, ambitious, brilliant work’ and ‘rarely have I had such a strong sense while reading a novel that I myself was there, in the room with the characters.’
The Bookseller reported this week that the book has sold 8,884 hardback copies, with a 241% leap (1,036 copies sold) in the week after its Booker shortlist announcement in September. It was the bookies’ favourite to win.
Damon Galgut, as winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, receives £50,000, a designer-bound edition of his book, and the £2,500 given to each shortlisted author. As the winner, he can expect instant international recognition.
The Booker Prize collaborated with the BBC to commission six films that were shown during the ceremony. Each film features an extract from a shortlisted book and is the work of a talented graduate of the BBC Arts-supported New Creatives scheme, mentored by Rural Media. The film of The Promise was directed by Christine Ubochi and starred David Jonsson. The films can be watched at thebookerprizes.com
The prize for quality fiction in English First awarded in 1969, The Booker Prize is recognized as the leading prize for literary fiction written in English. The list of former winners features many of the literary giants of the last five decades — from Iris Murdoch to Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul to Hilary Mantel.
Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction with his debut novel Shuggie Bain. In the first full week after the announcement, the book sold more than 25,000 copies in the UK, a 1900% increase on the week preceding the announcement. Shuggie Bain reached Number 1 in The Times and the LA Times bestseller lists, Number 2 in The Sunday Times bestseller list, and Number 3 in The New York Times bestseller list. It was chosen as the ‘Book of the Year’ by The Times and the Daily Telegraph and won both ‘Debut of the Year’ and ‘Book of the Year’ at the 2021 British Book Awards. It is now published or forthcoming in 40 territories and has already sold over three-quarters of a million copies in its Picador editions. Rights have been sold for a planned TV series.
Thebookerprizes.com, the home of the Booker Prizes past and present, was relaunched this year and will become a hub for year-round editorial content designed to engage readers with both prizes and to foster a lifelong love of reading. The Booker Prize is supported by Crankstart, a charitable foundation.
Damon Galgut is an award-winning South African novelist, short story writer, and playwright, who wrote his first novel aged 17. He has won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, the 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for Arctic Summer, and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize with The Good Doctor, among others. Two films were made of his book The Quarry. In 2013, Galgut was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He grew up in Pretoria, and now lives in Cape Town. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.