By Olivia Moody
Whittled down from a longlist of thirteen novels, and then a shortlist of six, Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain, has been awarded the 2020 Booker Prize (and the £50,000 that comes with the title).
Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have read Stuart’s novel – the only book on the shortlist that I’ve managed to find time to read is Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King – but it’s one sat near the top of my to-be-read stack. Published by Picador in February of this year, Shuggie Bain finds itself based loosely upon Stuart’s own childhood in Glasgow: as summarised by Booker, the novel “lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty” in the era of Thatcher’s government (and the years of its aftermath), following a single mother who ‘dreamed of greater things” and but faces a losing battle with alcoholism. Stuart’s mother, to whom the novel is dedicated, died of alcoholism when he was sixteen; upon accepting the prize, he explained that his mother is “in every page of [his] book,” binding personal experience to the fiction of his writing.
Streamed on iPlayer and on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, the socially-distanced ceremony was held at London’s Roundhouse. Stuart and his fellow shortlisted nominees (Mengiste, Avni Doshi, Diane Cook, Brandon Taylor, and Tsitsi Dangarembga), were present throughout the ceremony, albeit virtually, though chair of the judges Margaret Busby was joined by 2019’s joint winner Bernadine Evaristo live at the Roundhouse. Busby explained that the judges’ decision was unanimous, taking just an hour to name Stuart’s debut as this year’s winner.
Despite the novel being labelled by Busby as “not a pleasant read,” Stuart insists in a pre-recorded clip that Shuggie Bain is “a very tender book with a lot of intimacy and love” – something you’d be forgiven for thinking would be absent in a narrative so intimately bound with addiction, rage and poverty.
Busby also pointed out just how diverse the shortlist was this year: Stuart himself is Scottish-American and based in New York, making him only the second Scottish author to win the prize in its 52 years. He explains that in being awarded the prize, a lot is offered to regional voices that otherwise aren’t given a platform in literature. Alongside Stuart, fellow shortlisted authors are from Ethiopian, Zimbabwean, Indian and American backgrounds, and between these selected authors are varying identities of class, education and sexuality. Busby adds that the Booker Prize is slowly coming to be seen as a progressive award, with nominees coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds each year.
Though it took some twelve years to complete the manuscript of Shuggie Bain, writing isn’t something that has always occupied Stuart. He moved to New York to begin a career in fashion design in his twenties, and so his entrance to the world of literature was a somewhat unconventional one. It may actually have been to his benefit, though: he wrote of Glasgow, its landscapes, dialect and culture, remotely from the US, providing him with a clarity that was both personal and affectionate towards the city, but also honest and detached.
Shuggie Bain was rejected some thirty times before it was picked up by UK publisher Picador, perhaps in part because it was a debut. Stuart’s second book, however, is complete, and with the reputation that comes with the Booker Prize, he reflects that in the last couple of months people have started to know and understand him as an author: he gives a lasting reflection that the literary award has the influence to bring otherwise marginalised voices to the centre of discussion, emphasising the importance of investing time in both new authors and new ideas in literature.
Image: Sol Noya Carreno