Scottish author Douglas Stuart wins Booker Prize for ‘Shuggie Bain’

“I always wanted to be a writer so this is fulfilling a dream,” Stuart, whose novel about a working-class family in the 1980s was inspired by his own childhood, said.

“This has changed my entire life,” he said in his acceptance speech.

Like the other finalists, the 44-year-old writer, who now lives in New York, was watching the socially distanced ceremony via video link due to the coronavirus lockdown in place in Britain.

Book about child’s love for flawed parent

Shuggie Bain Douglas Stuart
Douglas Stuart’s deeply personal winning novel. Image: AFP Photo/The Booker Prizes

Stuart’s book reflects his own experiences growing up with a mother who was an alcoholic and died from her addiction.

He described the book as a “love story” looking at the kind of “unconditional, often-tested love” that children can have for flawed parents.

In an emotional speech, he said: “My mother would be thrilled, she would be absolutely thrilled and I think she would be proud.”

He said he had carried “a lot of love and pain”, and writing the book was “incredibly healing for me”.

He also paid tribute to his native city, saying “growing up in Glasgow I think is one of the greatest inspirations of my life”.

Debut novelists dominate 2020 awards

Barack Obama
Barack Obama was a headliner at the Booker Prize ceremony. Image: AFP Photo/The Booker Prizes

Stuart was one of four debut novelists among the six finalists for one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards. 

Ahead of the announcement, British bookmakers had backed Stuart to claim the prize for the best work of English-language fiction published in the UK and Ireland.

He was chosen as winner from the most diverse shortlist in the prize’s five-decade history at a ceremony featuring contributions from former US president Barack Obama and the Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

The Booker Prize has launched careers and courted controversy since its creation in 1969.

The winner receives £50,000 (R1.02m) in prize money and huge international attention.

Literary greats among past winners

Judges in 2019 tore up the rule book by awarding it jointly to Canadian author Margaret Atwood and Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo.

Evaristo said at Thursday’s ceremony that winning the prize was a “magical moment” and “I feel like I was launched out into the world as an author”.

Past laureates have included celebrated writers from Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes to Kazuo Ishiguro and Roddy Doyle.

Paul Beatty became the first US winner when the Booker bowed to pressure and began including authors from outside the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe in 2013.

‘Welcoming the new’

Booker Prize winners
Shortlisted authors, clockwise from top left, Douglas Stuart, Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Maaza Mengiste and Brandon Taylor on screen at Thursday’s ceremony. Image: AFP Photo/The Booker Prizes

The 2020 finalists also included American Avni Doshi’s first novel Burnt Sugar alongside fellow US debutants Diane Cook (The New Wilderness) and Brandon Taylor (Real Life).

Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga (This Mournable Body) and Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste (The Shadow King) were the only established authors on the list.

The list was whittled down by a panel of five judges from a US-dominated longlist of 13 finalists, which had included veteran Hilary Mantel.

Margaret Busby, chair of the five 2020 judges, said before announcing the prize that “discovering great literature depends on freeing the imagination, being open to welcoming the new”.

“I don’t think I’m breaking the rules to say this: please read all the books on the shortlist,” she added.

Finalists cover complex themes

Dangarembga’s final volume in her trilogy that started with Nervous Conditions chronicles the journey of a young girl from Zimbabwe sinking into poverty.

Mengiste, the first Ethiopian author to make the Booker shortlist, tells the story of the uprising against the Italian invasion in the 1930s.

Burnt Sugar explores the complex relationship between an ageing mother and her daughter in contemporary India, while The New Wilderness is a dystopian fiction set in a world made inhospitable by the climate crisis. 

Real Life debut follows an introverted man’s experience of racism as he arrives at a US university.

By Joe Jackson © Agence France-Presse