Booksellers have welcomed the decision to award Scottish author Douglas Stuart the Booker Prize for his “beautiful, heart-breaking” debut Shuggie Bain (Picador), hailed by judges as a future classic.
The US-based writer, the only Brit on this year's shortlist, was crowned the £50,000 prize winner at London's Roundhouse on Thursday (19th November) during a ceremony featuring contributions from Barack Obama and the Duchess of Cornwall among others.
This week, the book had already been named Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year and the chain's fiction buyer Bea Carvalho said she was “thrilled” by the news.
She said: “For a debut novel to win this most influential prize is a hugely promising sign for the future of fiction. Shuggie Bain stood out this year as a work of raw emotion and unflinching honesty with all the markings of a future classic, which will surely mark the beginning of a long and important career. Of the shortlist, it has been our bestselling title: it is a book which our booksellers have been heartily recommending since its arrival and we’re thrilled to have another opportunity to introduce Douglas Stuart’s words to a wider readership. This beautiful, heart-breaking book is a very worthy winner.”
At Grassington's Stripey Badger co-owners James Firth and Linda Furniss agreed it was a popular choice. They said: “The regional and working class Shuggie Bain caught our hearts and was the book we secretly backed."
Blackwell's staff said they had seen strong interest overnight from customers online and the team were looking forward to selling many more copies. Peter Marsh, reader-in-residence at the the chain's London Holborn shop, said: “The book vividly captures the feeling of abandonment and despair of communities shattered by shipyard and mine closures but still retains dark humour, resilience and the hope of redemption."
Stuart becomes only the second Scot to win the prize, following James Kelman's win with How Late It Was, How Late (Secker & Warburg) in 1994. Stuart has said that Kelman's win — controversial at the time because of the amount of swearing in the novel — changed his life as it was "one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page".
Shuggie Bain, based on Stuart's own childhood, tells the story of a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow with a mother who is battling addiction. Stuart, a former fashion designer who started writing in his spare time a decade ago, dedicated the book to his own mother, who died of alcoholism when he was 16.
The author, who confirmed at the ceremony that he had just completed a second novel, has said 30 editors passed on his debut before it was eventually picked up by Grove Atlantic in the US and Picador bagged UK and Commonwealth rights.
Explaining the choice, chair of judges Margaret Busby said the winner was “amazingly emotive” and hard to forget. She went on: “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.”
She added: “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. Shuggie Bain can make you cry and make you laugh — a daring, frightening and life-changing novel.”
Busby said she and fellow judges Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Emily Wilson and Lemn Sissay only took an hour to come to their unanimous decision.
Joking that she thought of naming six winners this year, she said: “The shortlist is full of some wonderful writers but in the end we all came together behind Shuggie Bain.”
Busby added: “There is so much in those pages. Some books you can read and then not necessarily want to go back, but I think that relationship between the mother and the son, which is challenging but loving. It's about how do you love somebody who doesn't really let you love them. There's so many emotions there to engage with and learn from.”
At a press conference following his win, Stuart told journalists that as a child, he didn't grow up around books, and his home life was "such a riot I couldn't focus on reading". It wasn't until he was living alone at 16, after the death of his mother, that teachers introduced him to writers like Thomas Hardy and Tennessee Williams, and he was in his twenties before he found his way to Scottish writers like Kelman and queer writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Jeannette Winterson.
"Representation is so important, for young queer Scottish kids or working-class kids to see themselves," he said. He urged other young Scottish writers to dedicate themselves to their craft, saying: "The world needs your voice: your voice adds a richness that we need in the times we are in."
His mother would be "incredibly proud" to see his achievement, he added.
The winning book was picked from a shortlist featuring Diane Cook's The New Wilderness (Oneworld), This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber), Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton), The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate) and Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Originals). Shuggie Bain has been the bestselling title on the shortlist via Nielsen BookScan. Busby urged people to read all the books on the shortlist, saying: "Reading is about freeing the imagination, not about erecting barriers against the unfamiliar and alien."
Last year's judges broke the rules when they selected two winners — Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood. Literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation Gaby Wood revealed this year's judges were under strict instructions to only pick one and guidelines had been added to allow a majority vote if needed.
In the run-up to the winner's announcement, via a virtual ceremony, Barack Obama spoke of how reading had offered him respite from the daily pressures of presidency, while the Duchess of Cornwall noted that, at a time of pandemic, "As long as we can read we can travel, escape, explore, we can laugh and we can cry and we can grapple with life's mysteries."
To read our interview with Douglas Stuart about his Booker Prize winning debut novel, Shuggie Bain, click here.
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