Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
Shuggie Bain comes from a deep understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent, showing a world rarely portrayed in literary fiction, and to that extent it’s admirable and important. I had qualms, about Shuggie’s precocity and particularly about the depiction of women, who are all scrawny or flabby, wearing too much makeup or not enough, and whose clothes are always wrong – “tight leggings” suggest loose morals while “baggy leggings” show slovenliness. Stuart’s prose is baroque, rich in adjectives with a habit of pointing out what he’s just shown. These things are partly a matter of taste and training, but sometimes impatience with the heavy-handed prose interrupted my interest in Shuggie and Agnes.
This is a panoramic portrait of both a family and a place, and Stuart steeps us fully in the grim decline of the Thatcher years: cheap booze, closed pits and lives lived on tick.
The rollercoaster misery of tragic Agnes’s alcoholism can be gruelling, and at more than 400 pages, this novel is longer than it needs to be. But it is also tender and unsentimental — a rare trick — and the Billy Elliot-ish character of Shuggie, when he does take the floor, leaps off the page.
He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster — only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains. The book is long, more than 400 pages, but its length seems crucial to its overall effect. Like Agnes, we’re all doomed to our patterns. How often we repeat the same disastrous mistakes, make the same wrong turn again and again. And yet, like Shuggie, how often we rise, against all odds, to stumble forward once more. The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.