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Booker Prize 2020 winner Shuggie Bain is a brutal and tender classic

Scottish author Douglas Stuart’s novel stood out for offering something so deeply seen and so overflowing with emotion, writes Martin Chilton

Friday 20 November 2020 14:09 GMT
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Scottish writer Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize for fiction  for ‘Shuggie Bain’, his novel about a boy’s turbulent coming of age in hardscrabble 1980s Glasgow
Scottish writer Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize for fiction  for ‘Shuggie Bain’, his novel about a boy’s turbulent coming of age in hardscrabble 1980s Glasgow (AP)

There is a heartbreaking moment in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the thoroughly deserved winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, when disreputable drunk Agnes Bain shares a bath with her five-year-old son Hugh (Shuggie), and he scrapes old nail polish from her toes, “his care and attention feeling like a penny dropped in an empty meter”. It’s a telling simile. Agnes is often forced to survive by breaking into the electricity meter for 50 pence coins.

Glasgow-born Stuart, the son of an alcoholic single mother who died alone at home when the author was 16, has transformed elements of his own past into a poignant, moving novel about an inverted parent/child relationship and the quicksand of a poverty-stricken existence in a city ravaged by Margaret Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s.

Stuart’s five shortlist rivals for the prize – Diane Cook (The New Wilderness), Avni Doshi (Burnt Sugar), Tsitsi Dangarembga (This Mournable Body), Maaza Mengiste (The Shadow King) and Brandon Taylor (Real Life) – also wrote skilfully about individuals battling to sustain humanity under terrible circumstances, but Shuggie Bain stood out by offering something so personal, so deeply seen and so overflowing with emotion.

In Agnes, a woman whose “mind was a jumping slide projector” as she gulps down Special Brew and vodka, Stuart has drawn a strangely charismatic mother, incorrigible, chaotic and self-destructive. You fear from the start that she will be early to decay, like the ravaged city in which she is trying to bring up Shuggie, his brother Leek and sister Catherine.

Stuart sometimes ladles on the despair – the novel has echoes of the agony of poverty depicted in the 1982 television series Boys from the Blackstuff – but even the most pitiful scenes are nuanced. The subtle texture of Stuart’s prose is remarkable for a debut novel and he keeps the novel from becoming mawkish. Perhaps it’s no surprise it took the 44-year-old fashion designer a decade to write this sharp-eyed account of human fallibility.

Living in Pithead, “a forgotten corner of misery”, is torture for sensitive child Shuggie, who is baited constantly by the sort of kids who hurl cats into abandoned pit quarries. Shuggie, growing up gay in a homophobic landscape, is the victim of bullying and sexual violence, dismissed as “not quite right”. He is left to his own lonely struggle, having to learn the hard lesson that some things – and some people – can’t be fixed. Agnes, sinking under the gleeful gaze of her hard-faced neighbours, drinks ever more wildly to keep the pain and loneliness at bay.

Although the adult men are to some extent victims (“rotting into the settee for want of decent work”) they are an aggressive, feckless bunch – and none more so than Shuggie’s father, Shug, who ditches his family. Stuart picks apart Shug with precision, highlighting his insecurities – this serial philander is constantly worried by his thin, ratty-looking bald comb-over – and his cruelty. One of the many impressive things in the novel are the small, penetrating details about toxic behaviour.

This year’s shortlisted authors, (top L-R) Douglas Stuart, Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, (bottom L-R) Brandon Taylor, Maaza Mengiste and Tsitsi Dangarembga speak virtually at at London’s Roundhouse (PA)

Although Stuart was the only UK-born shortlisted author, all the finalists offered a welcome reminder that there must be room in a genuinely diverse publishing industry for novels from all backgrounds and social classes. The varied settings of the shortlist books, which included a blighted futuristic wilderness and Ethiopia in the 1930s, were interesting, yet none felt as authentic as Stuart’s Glasgow, which is like an eccentric character all of its own: from feral Pitdown to the oddball Grand Ole Opry nightclub, where country music nights are combined with gun-slinging contests.

Last year’s award was beset by controversy, following the decision to split the prize between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, but Stuart was a unanimous choice of the Booker panel, with chair of judges Margaret Busby hailing the book as “a classic”.

Although Shuggie Bain is a gloomy, brutal read, there is an underlying compassion and humour that make it an enriching one; and it is also, at heart, a tender love story about a son and his troubled mother. Stuart now walks away with a hefty £50,000 prize pot, which may be the only time a working-class Glaswegian has benefitted from anything to do with Margaret Thatcher.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador, £14.99

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