I don’t mind admitting that I nearly missed the news that a Scottish author was in the running for this year’s Booker Prize when I got word through on this year’s contenders.
I only decided to look into Douglas Stuart’s background because although his name was unfamiliar it leapt out from this week’s 13-strong longlist – which included eight first-time novelists – as someone that sounded Scottish. My hunch was right.
After a few minutes of research, I was engrossed with the story of the Glasgow-born writer who has been living in New York for the last 20 years, started writing his first novel in his spare time while he was working as a fashion designer and took more than a decade to complete it.
It’s probably fair to say Stuart was something of an unknown quantity in his home country until the longlist came out and featured his debut novel.
Somewhat bizarrely, Shuggie Bain, his story focusing on the relationship between a young boy and his alcoholic mother, has only been written about in the US media before this week, despite its depictions of the realities of working-class life in 1981 – two years into the Margaret Thatcher era of government in the UK.
That’s because the book is only just about to be released in the UK, in plenty of time to ensure eligibility for the award, but before any real hype has built up in his home country.
Yet American critics have been lavishing praise on Shuggie Bain since its release back in February, with Stuart garnering glowing reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue and Elle, a collection many writers would happily settle for over an entire career.
It is clear from the handful of interviews he has given that Stuart’s own upbringing has heavily influenced Shuggie Bain, which the author describes as a love story to Glasgow, which he said he started writing as a result of “grieving for the boy I once was, for the people I grew up around and the city I love”.
The fact that he has told how he grew up “in a house with no books”, was bullied at school and was persuaded against going to college because it was “not a thing boys from my background do” will hopefully provide plenty of inspiration for future generations of Scottish writers wracked with self-doubt, struggling to find their voice as a writer or simply trying to make a name for themselves.
Then there was the fact that Stuart somehow managed to find spare time to work on Shuggie Bain while he was working as a New York fashion designer – writing in “the margins of the day “ until the working week became “an obstacle to overcome” before he could return to his characters.
It remains to be seen whether Stuart, whose new book chronicles a dark time in Glasgow’s recent history, will go on to emulate the kind of success enjoyed by the authors he cites as major influences, such as James Kelman, a former Booker Prize winner himself, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh.
However, its longlisting for the coveted award seems certain to ensure that Shuggie Bain is set to become one of the biggest Scottish books of the year – a much-needed good news story after the prolonged closure of bookshops and the wiping out of the industry’s festivals calendar, and rich reward for the perseverance of Stuart and proof of the enduring power of the written word no matter how long it takes for writers to piece them together.
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