Booker Prize 2020: What is Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain all about?

Stuart's novel is a tightly-cut portrait of the working class but at its heart weaves a heart-rending tale of a family struggling to survive, and surviving as a struggle. It is also about children loving damaged parents and grappling with past to come to terms with their present.

The Booker Prize 2020 was announced Thursday night and an elaborate ceremony later, Douglas Stuart was conferred with the coveted honour for his debut work, Shuggie Bain. This makes Stuart the second Scottish writer after James Kelman to win the honour. Expressing gratitude, the 44-year-old author tweeted, “THANK YOU. I am so grateful to @thebookerprizes and the judges for selecting Shuggie Bain as the 2020 Booker winner. It’s difficult to express what this honour means in a tweet. So I’m googling skywriters, and I’ll let youse know when to look up.”

In a video shared later, the judges — comprising authors Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, writer Lemn Sissay and translator Emily Wilson — took turns to extol Stuart’s work. Child envisioned the book to be elevated as a classic in the years to come. “For the future generation of readers, I seriously think, it will be a long time classic that is loved, admired and remembered for a very long time.”

The 2020 novel is set in 1980s Glasgow and centred on a lonely child Hugh “Shuggie” who lives in dilapidated public housing. Owing to Margaret Thatcher’s policies, unemployment is on the rise. Shuggie shares a deep bond with his mother Agnes, but like everybody else, she is not left unscathed. She envisions her own happiness and watches it fade with her philandering husband. The ensuing pain is hidden behind layers of make-up but ultimately she finds solace in alcohol. She keeps oscillating between sobriety and inebriation making her children abandon her and leaving behind only Shuggie to take care of someone who took care of him.

Stuart’s novel is a tightly-cut portrait of the working class but at its heart weaves a heart-rending tale of a family struggling to survive, and surviving as a struggle. It is also about children loving damaged parents and grappling with past to come to terms with their present.

ALSO READ | Booker Prize 2020: Douglas Stuart wins for debut novel Shuggie Bain

Stuart’s break out work had previously won the prestigious National Book Award and an article in The New York Times, titled How ‘Shuggie Bain’ Became This Year’s Breakout Debut, traced the autobiographical roots of his work. “Like Shuggie, Stuart had a lonely childhood. The youngest of three, he felt like an only child, as his older brother and sister were teenagers when he was born and found jobs to escape the chaos at home. He barely knew his father, who left when Stuart was young. Stuart often functioned as a caretaker for his mother, who would black out from drinking and sometimes try to harm herself,” it states. The book has been dedicated to his mother.

Shuggie Bain is destined to be a classic — a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values. The heart-wrenching story tells of the unconditional love between Agnes Bain — set on a descent into alcoholism by the tough circumstances life has dealt her — and her youngest son. Shuggie struggles with responsibilities beyond his years to save his mother from herself, at the same time as dealing with burgeoning feelings and questions about his own otherness. Gracefully and powerfully written, this is a novel that has impact because of its many emotional registers and its compassionately realised characters. The poetry in Douglas Stuart’s descriptions and the precision of his observations stand out: nothing is wasted,” Margaret Busby, 2020 chair of judges, editor, literary critic and former publisher was quoted as saying.

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