South African writer Damon Galgut has won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction on Wednesday with “The Promise,” a novel that narrates the story of a white family’s reckoning with South Africa’s racist history.
The author had been British bookmakers’ runaway favorite to win the 50,000-pound ($69,000) prize with his story of a troubled Afrikaner family and its broken promise to a Black employee — a strong tale that reflects and displays bigger themes in South Africa’s transition from apartheid.
Galgut received the prize on his third time as a finalist, for a book the judges called a “tour de force.” Earlier, he was shortlisted for “The Good Doctor” in 2003 and “In a Strange Room” in 2010, although lost both times.
His novel paints a troubling and striking picture of modern-day South Africa, though the author said he did not set out to be negative in any way.
Galgut also said that he was accepting the prize “on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard, from the remarkable continent that I’m part of.” He noted that this year’s Nobel literature laureate, Zanzibar-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, was also African.
“I didn’t plan for the overall trajectory of the book to be a downward one,” he said.
“I think the portrait it paints of modern South Africa is not a happy one,” he said. “I had no agenda in describing it that way, but things are not great with us right now. You could read that as a warning or a portrait, I don’t know, but South Africa has seen better days.”
Historian Maya Jasanoff, who had chaired the judging panel, said “The Promise” was a profound, forceful and succinct book that “combines an extraordinary story, rich themes — the history of the last 40 years in South Africa — in an incredibly well-wrought package.”
Mr. Galgut’s ninth novel traces members of the Swart family — the word that is Afrikaans for black — haunted by an unkept commitment to give their Black maid, Salome, her very own house. The book is formed around a series of funerals over several decades; the author has said he wanted to make readers fill in the narrative gaps themselves.
He is the third South African novelist to win the Booker Prize, after Nadine Gordimer in 1974 and J.M. Coetzee, who won twice, in 1983 and 1999.
“The Promise” was selected over five other novels, including three by U.S. writers: Richard Powers’ “Bewilderment,” the story of an astrobiologist trying to care for his neurodivergent son; Patricia Lockwood’s social media-steeped novel “No One is Talking About This” and Maggie Shipstead’s aviator saga “Great Circle.”
Ms. Jasanoff said most of the shortlisted novels, including Galgut’s, reflected on the relationship between the past and present.
“This is a book that’s very much about inheritance and legacy,” she said of the winner. “It’s about change over a period of decades. And I think it’s a book that invites reflection over the decades and invites and repays rereading.”
Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize has a reputation for changing writers’ careers and was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers. Eligibility was expanded in 2014 to all novels in English published in the U.K.