Submitted by The Booker Prizes on Fri, 20/11/2020 - 16:37
The strangest and most unsettling year in most people’s lives at last seems a little more stable. Every year, the announcement of a new Booker Prize winner is one of those seasonal events that suggests the world remains spinning on its axis. This year it does still spin, just, but the news that Douglas Stuart is the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize for Shuggie Bain reminds us of the old saying ars longa, vita brevis. Stuart now takes his place in an unbroken literary-historical line that goes back to the first year of the prize in 1969.
In 20 years’ time will Stuart be remembered as the “coronavirus winner” or as one of those chosen writers who have added their lustre to the prize and received its lustre in return? Who will remember then that the judges and prize administrators had to work in extraordinary circumstances? That the prize ceremony couldn’t take place at a grand gathering in the Guildhall in London but at an innovative online celebration? That books, and in particular the urgent fiction seen on this year’s shortlist, were seen not as a luxury but as a necessity in negotiating a world turned on its head. The strains of that world were felt by everyone but for the chair of judges Margaret Busby and her posse – Emily Wilson, Lee Child, Lemn Sissay, and Sameer Rahim – they were exacerbated by the task of reading 162 submitted novels. That they included four debut fictions on their shortlist perhaps reflected that novel times need novel voices.
Shuggie Bain is one of those debuts and, as an account of growing up in hard times – Glasgow in the 1980s – seems appropriate for the hard times of now. The book deals with a young boy struggling to save his alcoholic mother from herself while negotiating the difficulties not just of growing up but of poverty. It is set in a rough but tight community in a Glasgow that the good times have long left behind and is not just a portrait of a time and place, and of Shuggie and Agnes, but a story of the inseparable nature of love and pain. What drives the book is Shuggie’s inability to divide the two. Here is a world that doesn’t like escapees: Agnes turns to drink, Shuggie clings to his dreams of hairdressing college in the face of a violent father and penury. It sounds grim – and it does, after all, describe grimness – but the writing and the undaunted humanity of Shuggie give it flashes of transcendence. As Margaret Busby, the chair of judges, was at pains to point out, there is beauty in the book that shines all the more brightly because of its setting.
Shuggie Bain is the second Scottish novel to win the prize, the first being James Kelman’s controversially demotic How Late it Was, How Late of 1994. Indeed Stuart referenced that book as major influence because it taught him that his home town and circumstances were as valid a resource for fiction as the loves and lives of Hampstead residents, or the Tudor court, of other seemingly exotic and distant realms. Shuggie Bain is also a very personal story; Stuart dedicated it to his own mother, who died of alcoholism when he was just 16. She didn’t live to see him make a successful career as a fashion designer that took him from the Royal College of Art to New York, where he has lived for the past 20 years. Nor did she have an inkling that he would forge a second – and with the award of the Booker Prize, an arguably more successful career, as a novelist. That doesn’t make the book lightly fictionalised autobiography but does give it the heft of lived experience.
Stuart’s writing life has in fact been far from effortless. The book itself took him 10 years to write and, like another recent Booker Prize winner, Anna Burns, he struggled to get it published. No fewer than 30 publishers turned the novel down before Picador took it on. Their faith in it was rewarded in part when it was voted last year’s Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year, when it was shortlisted for the National Book Award, was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for fiction, and then came its Booker Prize shortlisting and the news that in the past week it was the top-selling title on the shortlist. In hindsight, Stuart’s win seems to have an inevitability about it but that pattern is never clear at the time.
Stuart’s triumph nevertheless has a perfect symmetry: the book tells a remarkable story and his own story is remarkable too.