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Novelist Damon Galgut wins Booker Prize for 'The Promise'

Damon Galgut in London's Royal Festival Hall in October.
John Phillips
Getty Images
Damon Galgut in London's Royal Festival Hall in October.

Twice shortlisted for the prestigious British literary award, the South African novelist Damon Galgut is a Booker bridesmaid no more. He's the winner of the 2021 award for The Promise, a mordant, realist look at the Swarts family, white descendants of Boer settlers during the aftermath of apartheid in the latter half of the 20th century.

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

"Don't look for much hope in this novel," wrote reviewer Rand Richards Cooper in the New York Times upon the novel's release in the United States in April. "Its 'negative and destructive power,' as one character says about the Swarts' bad karma, is relentless."

Describing Galgut as "a gleeful satirist," Cooper compared the novelist to a fellow South African writer, the earlier two-time Booker winner and Nobel Literature laureate J.M. Coetzee.

Galgut devised the novel's complicated, mosaic-like structure during an afternoon drinking with a friend who had just attended a series of funerals, he told BBC Radio 4's Front Row.

"It occurred to me that it would be a novel and interesting way of approaching a family saga," the author explained. "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."

The chair of this year's panel of Booker judges, Maya Jasanoff, described the selection in a statement: "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."

The Booker Prize winner receives £50,000 — over $68,000. Former winners include Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel. Recipients traditionally see a huge spike in sales.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.