2020 Man Booker Prize Winner

2020 was certainly a year like no other, and it was not just because of the pandemic. Over in the revered halls of literature, new works are making waves. This new wave was most palpable in the Man Booker Prize. When the longlist was announced, everyone was beyond astounded. Of the thirteen longlisted novels, nine were written by women. It wasn’t only this statistic that was glaring. The longlist was utterly dominated by writers who just published their first works, as eight longlisted novesl were debut works. Although it wasn’t the first time, it didn’t come in as a surprise when a debut novel, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, was declared as the winner.

In his first novel, Douglas Stuart introduces the titular Hugh “Shuggie” Bain. At the young age of fifteen, Suggie found himself working shits at a supermarket deli to sustain himself. He was also living alone and was being harassed by an older man. Without preamble, the narrative jumped to early 1980s, to give a context to the contemporary. In 1981, Shuggie was five-years old. He was the only son of Agnes and Hugh Bain. Agnes has previously mothered two children – Leek and Catherine – in her first marriage with the Catholic man. The family was living with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, in a tenement flat in Sighthill.

The Bains is a collection of imperfect but interesting characters. Hugh, the patriarch is often absent, choosing to spend more time either working as a cab driver or chasing other women. On the other hand, Agnes is a beautiful woman often compared to Elizabeth Taylor. Drowned by unfulfilled dreams, she took to the bottle. Her two oldest children, Leek and Catherine, were waiting for perfect opportunity to leave the family. To live independently and far from the influence of Agnes’s parents, Hugh moved the family into a council flat in Pithead for families of the local mine. Agnes was brimming with hope for a better future as she wanted to live in glitz and glamour. The reality, however, is not a stuff made of dreams.

“She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”

~ Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

The Bains’ Pithead flat is a far cry from the life of opulence that Agnes has always dreamt of. They were surrounded by abject poverty and they were slowly being sucked into the very heart of this cesspool. Drowning in her frustrations and unhappiness, Agnes became increasingly dependent on alcohol. It was her form of escape and coping mechanism from the squalor and helplessnes that her life is inevitably heading towards. Things took a turn for the worse after Big Shug Bain confronted his wife about her alcoholism. He then abandoned his family and moved in with Joanie Micklewhite, the dispatcher of his cab company. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Catherine married young and moved to South Africa with her husband. But Agnes was made of tougher materials. Her family was falling at the seams but she proudly managed to put on a good front: “When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”

The façade she put on belied her growing perversion towards the bottle. Her increasing reliance on alcohol alienated her from her children who chose to keep a safe distance from their mother. With Agnes’ unemployment, the family relied on the assistance afforded by the government. Stuck in dire straits and without any mature guidance, Leek and Shuggie were both forced to mature quicker than their peers. To help support the family’s meager finances, Leek sought employment. However, what little he earns coupled with the public assistance goes to a bottle of vodka. Nevertheless, both brothers held on to the promise that things are going to change one day, that their mother will toughen up and conquer her demons. Alas, all was not lost as Agnes voluntarily attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She also managed to keep a job.

Stuart told two distinct narratives that, although run parallel to each other, converged on several points as the narrative progress. Agnes Bain loomed large in the narrative. Through her story, Stuart grappled with dark and heavy motifs such as alcoholism, addiction, and domestic and sexual abuse. Her story went beyond the tangible and physical as it also explored the psychological, the absence of hope, the dreams we want to fulfill, and the frustrations and disappointments stemming from our failure to reach for those stars. She was, however, not a monochromatic character as she has dreams but she was weighed down by the circumstances around her. She was a complex character who leaves her first husband just because she was bored with him: “Big Shug Bain had seemed so shiny in comparison to the Catholic. He had been vain in the way only Protestants were allowed to be, conspicuous with his shallow wealth, flushed pink with gluttony and waste.”

On the brighter side is the story of Shuggie, the devoted son. He had to cope with the events in his household but he also had concerns of his own. With no one else to rely on, he learned to fend for himself. Through his story, Stuart portrayed a young child on the cusp of young adulthood struggling to find his own voice and to understand his own identity. His effeminate tendencies and naturally emotional and sensitive side made him the subject of bullying in both his neighborhood and his school. He tried to fit in but he was also alienated because he lacked society’s idea of masculinity. He had no friends but he found company in his mother and older brother. But whilst the novel derived its title from his name, his voice was stifled by his mother’s lifestyle and choices that shaped their lives.

The thousand blinking lights from the promenade rained down on her, and she moved towards them with a slack mouth. She was so struck she hardly drew a breath. The black paillettes on her new dress reflected the bright lights and sent them back twinkling into the Fair Fortnight crowd till she looked as radiant as the illuminations herself.

~ Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

In weaving the story of Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart drew parallels from his own life. In Shuggie Bain, he charted the story of a young man who kept yearning for his mother’s love. Even though his mother kept pushing him back, he stuck by her side. When Agnes was hungover, Shuggie skipped school to take care of her. When she was too weak to get the public assistance every Tuesday, Shuggie would volunteer and go collect it. During her darkest days, Shuggie’s devotion for her never wavered. His love for her was unconditional. She is falling apart but she was still his hero. He had an acute sense and awareness of everything around him and what needed to be done.

The interweaving stories of a mother and a son was juxtaposed on a rich albeit decaying setting. Stuart, with his rich and descriptive text, managed to capture the drastic change that took place during Margaret Thatcher’s era. The dire consequences of her economic policies were written all over the narrative. In big industrial cities like Glasgow, the reverberations were more pronounced and caught in the crossfire were the working class families. It was a period plagued with unemployment, poverty, violence, prostitution, and addiction. Through Stuart’s uncanny writing, the ominous setting vividly projected the moods and the spirits of the characters. Stuart’s rich text also managed to capture in intricate details the class structure of the period, including the religious divide, and the neighborhood culture.

The novel grappled with dark and heavy motifs. However, the novel largely relied on repetitions as Stuart kept on running the same harrowing cycles of Agnes’ alcoholism, from the awkward incidents, the endless vomiting, and the hangover that lingers later. The novel was unremitting in its depiction of addiction and poverty that it eventually weighs down on the narrative. The ripples of Agnes’ cyclical alcoholism also rippled on the other facets of the novel. The lack of a dynamic plot resulted into passive characters. Stuart crafted complex characters but their profiles were incomplete as we only get to know their sufferings. There tender moments between mother and son but they were rare and far in between.

It had its blunders but, in his debut novel, Stuart’s writing flourished. His brand of storytelling is compelling, riveting the readers in. He has a lush language and a descriptive text with which he crafted several elaborate scenes. He never relented in capturing the spirit of the period. With his powerful and evocative prose, Glasgow came alive. The pungent smell of poverty and the pandemonium of the disorderly tenements were vividly captured by his masterful storytelling. Each line was carefully constructed. To give the novel a more authentic feel, he accented the dialogue with the Scottish dialect.

“As the women gabbed about the routine of their lives, she only listened to the noises beyond them and strained for any sounds of him in the room behind. now she wanted to tell the woman that she knew all about it. She knew about the sweaty taxi windows, his greedy hands, and how they must have panted at Shug to take them away from it all as he stuck his prick into them. it made her feel old and very alone. She wanted to tell them she understood. She knew all about its thrill because once upon a time it had been her.” 

~ Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

By virtue of winning the 2020 Man Booker Prize, Stuart became just the second Scottish author to win the prestigious award in its 51-year history. Shuggie Bain painted a bleak and profound picture of addiction and how it affects the people around us. It was a tale about dysfunctional families and poverty captured on a vignette of Scottish history. Beyond the squalor, it was a story about devotion and unconditional love. It was about the lengths we go through in order to be good enough for the people we love. It was about finding a perpetual supply of hope amidst the sea of hopelessness and helplessness. In the end, we grapple with the reality that even our best will never be enough: There was an emptiness in his belly. It was below his stomach; it went deeper than hunger. He sat at her feet and quietly started to talk to her. “I love you, Mammy. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you last night.

Nevertheless, we invest our time and effort because we believe there is no alternative. We hold on to that tiny sliver of hope, fervently hoping that it is all going to be worth it in the end. At times, we experience erosions of hope; it is inevitable. Still, we tightly hold on to the ropes but the tighter we hold on, the more painful it gets. Should we bear the pain and hold on or should we let go? There are people who we desperately want to help but in the end, we can only do too much.

Ratings

75%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

For the second year in a row, I was on the lookout for the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It has been my goal to read as many books as I can from the longlist. When the longlist was released, I saw only four names familiar to me – C Pam Zhang, Hilary Mantel, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Anne Tyler. Despite the sparsity of my knowledge, my attention was drawn into some works. One such work that reeled me in was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. My anticipation for and interest in the book doubled when it was declared the winner of 2020 Man Booker Prize. It took some time but I finally managed to purchase a copy of the book earlier this year and without further ado, I delved into it. I loved several aspects of the novel – the descriptive albeit melancholic writing, the atmosphere that absorbed the mood of the characters. However, my appreciation of the novel was weighed down by the repetitions. The story and the characters were so drawn into their environment that their passivity was frustrating. Nevertheless, the novel deserved merits for its ambition and its poignant storytelling.

Book Specs

Author: Douglas Stuart
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: October 2020
Number of Pages: 430
Genre: Bildungsroman

Synopsis

Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland, taking care of his beloved mother Agnes. Agnes is a proud, beautiful woman who turns herself out like her idol Elizabeth Taylor, but she is an alcoholic, who spends most of the family’s weekly benefits money on extra-strong lager and bottles of vodka. A heartbreaking story of addition, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family and a queer childhood from a masterful novelist, one of the most talented debut writers of recent years.

About the Author

Douglas Stuart was born in 1976 in Sighthill, a housing estate in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the youngest of three children and grew up in a house bereft of any books but was overflowing with poverty.

Stuart initially wanted to pursue English literature in college but was discouraged when one of his teachers mentioned that it is not a suitable career for someone of his background. In the end, he studied textiles and received his bachelor’s degree from the Scottish College of Textiles. He earned his master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London. When he was 24-years old, Stuart moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion design. For more than 20 years, he worked with brands such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic and Jack Spade.

Whilst working as a designer, he also started writing. His works were featured on The New Yorker and on Lithub. He was already a senior director of design at Banana Republic when he started working on his debut novel, Shuggie Bain. The manuscript was rejected by at 30 publishers before it was purchased by Grove Atlantic, an American independent publisher. Upon its publication, the novel was a critical success. It was adjudged the winner of the 2020 Man Booker Prize, making Stuart just the second Scottish author to win the award. It also won the 2020 Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year. It was also a finalist in several literary awards such as the National Book Award for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, and National Book Critics Circle Award: John Leonard Prize for Best First Book.

Last November 2020, Stuart revealed that he has finished writing his second novel, Loch Awe. Stuart currently resides in East Village, Manhattan with his husband, Michael Cary.