Scottish novelist Douglas Stuart wins Booker Prize for debut inspired by his mother, who died of alcoholism

PHOTO: NYTIMES

SINGAPORE - Scottish-American novelist Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize for Fiction on Thursday (Nov 19) for his debut novel Shuggie Bain.

The book, about a young queer boy growing up in working-class Scotland with an alcoholic mother, received the prestigious £50,000 (S$89,100) award at a virtual ceremony.

Stuart, 44, who works in fashion design in New York, said in a video call that he was "absolutely stunned".

"I'd like to, first of all, just thank my mother," he said. "I think I've been clear that my mother is on every page of this book, and without her, I wouldn't be here and my work wouldn't be here."

He grew up on a Glasgow public housing estate and was the youngest son of an alcoholic single mother, who died when he was 16.

"For 30 years, I've carried an awful lot of loss, love and pain," he said. "I wanted to really just tell the story of what it was like to grow up queer in Glasgow, to grow up with a parent whom you love but couldn't save.

"Shuggie is a work of fiction, but writing the book was incredibly healing for me. I think men from the west coast of Scotland are not ever expected to be able to express their finer feelings. Art is a great receptacle for that and to be able to connect with people, to ask for empathy from readers - and they've really given it - has been just hugely cathartic."

Shuggie Bain is the second Scottish book to win the prize, the other being How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman in 1994. Stuart called Kelman's book his "Bible" and said his own win " means a lot for regional voices, for working-class stories".

"Women like my mother were never voiceless," he said. "By God, they could roar. But I think society doesn't often like to look. I think right now we are polarising as a society and a lot of people are being left behind, and that terrifies me.

"As much as there's violence in the book, there's enormous tenderness. As much as there's sadness, I hope there's a lot of humour, and that is the Glaswegian experience."

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the prize ceremony was held virtually at London arts venue The Roundhouse and broadcast online.

Actors such as Thandie Newton, Ann-Marie Duff and Nina Sosanya performed pre-recorded readings from the shortlisted novels.

The star-studded event featured speakers such as former United States president Barack Obama, who on Tuesday (Nov 17) published the first volume of his blockbuster memoir, A Promised Land, and Nobel Literature Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

Mr Obama, 59, who is known to be an avid reader, said: "I am always impressed by authors who can write incredible works of fiction - even if that's what my critics call my speeches.

"Reading beautiful works of fiction late at night, by Booker Prize-listed authors like Marilynne Robinson, Colson Whitehead, Bernardine Evaristo and so many others, offered me a brief respite from the daily challenges of the presidency.

"At their best, Booker Prize-listed books remind me of fiction's power to help us put ourselves in someone else's shoes, understand their struggles and imagine new ways to tackle complex problems and effect change."

This year's shortlist has been hailed as the most diverse in the prize's history, dominated as it is by writers of colour, women and debut novelists.

The other novels in the running were Diane Cook's dystopian climate crisis novel The New Wilderness; This Mournable Body by pioneer Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga; Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, about a toxic mother-daughter relationship in India; The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, about Ethiopian women soldiers and Brandon Taylor's campus novel Real Life.

The Booker was established in 1969. Last year's prize caused a furore when not one but two winners, Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood, were announced, the third time in history that the award was shared.

Evaristo and Atwood spoke in a virtual conversation at Thursday's ceremony about the shock tie. "What I was mostly thinking was that I was in the wrong shoes," said Atwood, 81, who has been nominated multiple times but won for the first time last year. "They were pinching. I was hobbling around on the night of, thinking that was really stupid."

Evaristo, 61, said that after her win, she was worried about getting run over. "It was so good that I thought they would take it away from me by car."

Ishiguro, 66, who won the Man Booker in 1989 for The Remains of the Day, said the prize itself was not the final test. "The Booker Prize is like a dating agency. It introduces a book to the reading public and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"This isn't the final round. No, the really important round that comes after this is whether the readers, the general public, will take the Booker winner to heart."

  • Shuggie Bain ($29.95) is available at bit.ly/ShuggieBain_DS

  • This article includes affiliate links. When you buy through them, we may earn a small commission.