‘Shuggie Bain’ Douglas Stuart’s Debut Booker Prize Novel-An Introduction Novel-Aneela Saqib

Booker Prize Winner 2020
National Bestseller
Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize
Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal
Shortlisted for the Books are My Bag Breakthrough Author Award

Named a Best Book of the Year by Time and Kirkus Reviews

    The Booker Prize is not only UK’s most prestigious prize for fiction, it is considered one of the most honored awards after Nobel. Booker Prize winning writers include some of the well-known men of letters of modern world like Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie.

   Douglas Stuart is a Scottish – American author. He was born in May31, 1976, in Glasgow, Scotland. He received a bachelor’s degree from the Scottish College of Textiles and a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London. Stuart wanted to begin a career in fashion designing so moved to New York City at the age of 24 to begin a career in fashion design. He worked for many brands, including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Jack Spade.

   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. Fear and determination drove him on to finish high school while living on his own in a hostel after his mother’s death. In an interview he says:

   “I‘ve always felt like my life has been two very distinct parts. The man who worked in fashion in New York, but then the boy who grew up in Glasgow. And so in a lot of ways, writing the book was about sort of bringing those two halves back together.”

    As a boy in working class Glasgow, one of the ways Douglas Stuart learned to cope with his alcoholic mother’s mood swings was to pretend to write her memoir. They never got very far, but they always began with the dedication, “To Elizabeth Taylor, who knows nothing about love.” Stuart points out in one of his interview, “a diverse novel”. “It’s win a great thing for Scottish voices, for queer voices, for working class voices. I owe Scotland everything.”

   His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, is published by Grove Atlantic in the US and Picador in the UK. It is to be translated into eleven languages. He wrote Shuggie Bain over a ten year period and is currently at work on his second novel, Loch Awe. His short stories, Found Wanting, and The Englishman, were published in The New Yorker magazine. His essay, Poverty, Anxiety, and Gender in Scottish Working-Class Literature was published by Lit Hub

   From a lineup that headlined diversity by featuring first novels, women writers and writers of colour, among others, Shuggie Bain by Scottish American writer Douglas Stuart has won this year’s Booker Prize. Here’s a look at the book and its debutant author:

   Shuggie Bain is an autobiographical novel set in Glasgow in the 1980s. It follows the life of Shuggie, an impoverished boy struggling to look after his single mother, Agnes, an alcoholic, even as he grapples with his own sexuality. Despite its grimness and squalor, the book — dedicated to the writer’s mother, who died when he was 16 years old — brims with tenderness and filial affection. Stuart, 44, who grew up in Glasgow with a single mother, has said it was love, hope and a lot of humor that helped him overcome his own difficult circumstances.

    In his Booker Prize acceptance speech, Stuart said, “I’m absolutely stunned. I didn’t expect that at all. First of all, I will like to thank my mother…my mother is on every page of this book – I’ve been clear, without her I wouldn’t be here, my work wouldn’t be here.”

    A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Edouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.

   ‘Shuggie Bain’ is based on writer’s own life, the book tells the story of growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s with a mother struggling with addiction. Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see.

  1981. Glasgow. The city is dying. Poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had always expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect – but false – teeth). When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children find themselves trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes increasingly turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. Yet one by one they have to abandon her in order to save themselves.

    It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. But Shuggie has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a ‘normal boy’, everyone has decided that Shuggie is ‘no right’. Agnes wants to support and protect her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her, including her beloved Shuggie. Laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride, Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

    Stuart’s novel, which took him nearly a decade to write, was rejected by over 30 editors before it was accepted by publishers Picador in the UK and Grove Atlantic in the US. After its publication, it drew fabulous reviews, that included comparisons with James Joyce and DH Lawrence.

   The novel took him 10 years to write and was rejected by 32 publishers. The American publisher to which he first sent the manuscript was worried about finding a readership for a book about 1980s Scotland. “No one here had any idea what Thatcher did,” he says. “We are watching The Crown right now, and Margaret Thatcher and the government feel like very forthright, powerful people who are making things happen.”

   Like Shuggie, Stuart’s mother died from alcoholism when he was 16, but he is at pains to stress that this is a work of fiction: “It dwarfs and eclipses what any seven-year-old boy could go through.” Poverty, misogyny, homophobia, addiction and sectarianism are all touched upon but, above all, this is a love story between a mother and her son. “It is about the tested unconditional love, that sort of daily renewal of hope, that only children can have for flawed parents,” Stuart says.

    Both Shuggie and his mother Agnes are outsiders. “Agnes because women weren’t allowed to be anything other than what the community said they should be. And Shuggie because he’s a young queer boy, he’s effeminate and men don’t know what to do with him,” Stuart explains. “They are sort of marooned and clinging to each other against this city that is going through a really tough time.”

   This is the era of cassette tapes and endless cigarettes, closed mines and “men rotting into the  settee”, women trading Valium, vodka and everyday brutalities. “You can’t set a book in 80s Glasgow and not touch on politics,” he says. “It is so interwoven with how people felt unseen and how they didn’t have any hope.”

Judges of Booker Prize gave these remarks:

  “We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”

  The judges called Shuggie Bain “a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values.”

Aneela Saqib is a writer, dramatist and research scholar who is currently pursuing her Mphil from Riphah International University, Faisalabad.

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