100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before, a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kinds of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Who They Was- Gabriel Krauze (Harper Collins 2020)

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Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel has attracted considerable attention since it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.  Most of us would probably have not heard of it before the list was announced and even though I have only so far read one other book which has made it onto the list ( C Pam Zhang’s “How Much Of These Fields Is Gold”) I would say this is certainly short-list worthy.

It’s definitely not a comfort read.  It’s being marketed as an autobiographical novel from an author now in his thirties who lived a life of crime from his teenage years, here in this novel, even whilst studying English Lit at University.  Centred around the estates in South Kilburn this is a tale of casual violence, drugs, theft and where wearing an expensive watch is asking for trouble as they get stolen from their original owner and seemingly again and again from the thieves.

To begin with Gabriel, known as Snoopz, fits perfectly into this life and works with those keen to escalate the takings (and the violence).  Following a scholarship at a private school his Polish Dad and especially his mother, with naturally high hopes for her offspring, are dumbfounded but supportive.  Relationships are casual and with men bonded over drug taking and crime plotting and with women just disturbing as any attachment other than physical only seems to occur when they are apart.  University life is important to him but there’s a self-destructive attitude struggling to find prominence over a keen brain.

It’s written in street slang which slows the reader down but gives a vibrant energy to events.  I’ve never read anything quite like this from a British perspective.  The closest I can think of outside of this is Marlon James’s “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 although I think that book was more multi-layered than this more straightforward narrative.

I’m not going to get round to many more in the Booker list but I would place it above C Pam Zhang’s novel as I feel this is a more striking, relevant work.  I’m not sure what this author would do next but I’m fascinated to find out.

four-star

Who They Was was published as an e-book on 3rd August and will be published on 3rd September 2020 in hardback by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.