Back in September I said of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain: ‘This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.’ Well — last night, London time, Douglas Stuart was announced as the winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. https://thebookerprizes.com/fiction/2020
This post persists in giving my name, Jennifer Bryce, as the author. I am not. These reviews were written by Tony Thomas. I’ll ultimately learn how to delete my name as author! Tony Thomas has read all of the Booker long and short lists for 2020. He has awarded the books stars — out of five. An excellent book would receive five stars. Here are his brief reviews.
Sophie Ward Love and Other Thought Experiments(Corsair hc 2020 1st) (finished 11/8/20)
Yes it’s another (unacknowledged) sf novel by an author from outside the field. (This is the sentence I started with, reviewing The Wall last year, and it applies equally to this book).
Sophie Ward is a professional actress, 55, who has been in quite a few films and whom I must have seen in many British TV shows (eg Heartbeat, Inspector Lynley, Lewis, Hustle) but don’t remember. This is her first novel. She has two sons from her previous marriage to vet Paul Hobson (1988-96) after which she came out as a lesbian. In 2005 she and Rena Brennan had a civil partnership ceremony, and they married in 2014 when it became legal. She now describes her sons (b 1989 and 1993) as the sons of this marriage. She has an Open University degree in Literature and Philosophy.
Knowing all this, it’s not much of a surprise that each chapter starts with a philosophical conundrum, eg Pascal’s wager, brain-in-a-box, Chalmers’ zombies, Descartes’ demon etc, and then this is explored, more-or-less, in the chapter which follows. And also no surprise that the story begins with a lesbian relationship in the present day, in which the characters of Rachel and Eliza are well drawn in a conventional literary way. The chapters initially seem loosely connected – chapter two jumps to Rachel’s conception (we discover a good way through), chapter three deals with Rachel’s elderly mother and her husband in later life in Brazil, chapter four returns to the lesbian couple from the point of view of an ant which Rachel ‘imagines’ has entered her eye. The ‘ant’ eats the tumour which has started in Rachel’s head, which allows her to deliver the baby she is pregnant with, Arthur. The foetus has been artificially implanted using the egg of her wife Eliza and the sperm of a good gay friend, Hal. Not too long after this, Rachel dies. It’s about at this time that we realize that this is really an sf novel in literary guise: the ‘ant’ turns out to be (or to become, it’s unclear) a god-like super computer, which relates, in extremely broad metaphorical terms, the future of humanity, a humanity over which it exercises god-like powers, including the ability to enter or create parallel universes (those ones, you know, just a little bit different from ours). So in the final chapter, the adult Arthur has become an astronaut returning from a solo flight to the Mars moon,Deimos, (his ‘reality’ is the one I’ve described so far, but twenty or thirty years on) but on splashdown he’s greeted by his mother Rachel, still alive in this continuum, who soon realizes that there’s something different about this Arthur – he’s just extremely puzzled and confused, but he’s able to fool, for a while at least, his monitoring body-implanted personal computer (Zeus!), which of course is communicating everything to a future somewhat more sinister NASA. And does he become Zeus at the end? So it’s intimated, as he sits with his mother, contemplating all this, and is Zeus just another name for that ant, the super-computer, who is really Arthur as well? Ho hum. Well, all this canvasses a whole lot of rather hoary sf ideas, all lumped-together, though nicely enough done , but of course there is no attempt to explain why/how all this might happen in anything like science-fictional terms – it’s really all just a metaphor for the author to explore what I take to be her real interest, as the blurb says, ‘love lost and found across the universe’.
It kept me reading, though rather slowly. Now if only the Booker panel would put in a real sf novel by, say, Kim Stanley Robinson or Adam Roberts, better written than this, they might realise that there is an imaginative world out there they know almost nothing about.
Avni Doshi Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton pb 2020 pb 1st)(finished Aug 2020) Short list
Good on upper middle class Indian home life, especially family relationships. Not so good on India, how anybody makes money, sex, good prose, characterisation, art, and quite a bit else.
(a generous) ***1/2
Douglas Stuart Shuggie Bain (Picador hc 2020 1st) (finished 27/8/20) Short list
Terrific on alcoholism leading to the gutter and death. Glasgow according to this is an absolutely awful place to be – but this can’t be all of the story. The thankyous at the end suggest this is almost entirely autobiographical, the alcoholic mother, the gay boy, the brother and sister who escape, the awful lives of just about everybody. But where are the slightly better parts to life which the author has obviously experienced at school, in literature, art etc etc How depressing to have 400 pages of awfulness without let up.
Anne Tyler Redhead by the Side of the Road (Knopf 2020 hc 1st) (finished 28/8/20)
Set in Baltimore, about families and lonely single men, this seems to be another by-the-numbers novel from this author, with its manipulation of plot too close to the surface. Well written (enough), and with interesting detail (some). The protagonist, Micah Mortimer is over-organized in an autism spectrum way, but above all extremely un-self-knowledgeable, or even questioning. So as we and the author discover his many, many missteps, which become increasingly unlikely, we can sit back and wonder whether Micah will ever begin to know better – which leads to the surprise (!) ending when he does reclaim his girlfriend in a slightly soppy scene, but which, however, is maybe the only truly felt moment in the whole book. A central chapter, focussing on a family get-together, lays bare the weaknesses in this book. The attempted witty byplay between brothers, sisters and partners is reminiscent of a less than top class sitcom of twenty years ago – all that’s missing is the canned laughter – and is a good reason not to ever watch this pap as its re-churned on TV repeats on commercial lesser channels ad infinitum. Or to read books like this. Hard to understand why this made the longlist – I can’t believe this is Anne Tyler at her best. One virtue is the book’s brevity and that it’s very quick reading.
Kiley Reid Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury hc 2020) (finished 1/9/20)
Starts off as chick lit with conversations between two groups of women- boring as hell, hard to follow, with products mentioned in every other sentence. It takes nearly 100 pages before the plot begins to become evident: it’s really about the subtlest forms of black-white racism, the sort where the whites apparently have the right attitudes, but where the master-servant ideology and how blacks need to be ‘looked after’ is so culturally ingrained it is impossible for the money privileged to act in ways which are not racist, though they deny it even to themselves. This part of the book is very well done, though the situations used to develop the conflict seem so contrived as to be almost nonsensical on reflection. The portraits of the two main whites, Alix and Kelley, both extremely flawed, are well done, but the character of the black protagonist, Emira, lacks by comparison, partly because she is given so little to do of her own volition, being moved by others, including friends, much of the time. Nevertheless, the book came to life in the second half and made me want to keep reading.
C Pam Zhang How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Virago hc 2020 1st) (finished 8/9/20)
Extremely poetically written story of the Old West. Unfortunately the plot doesn’t live up to the prose. Although there are unusual main characters (almost the only characters as such), early Chinese and Chinese descendants involved in gold prospecting, and despite the insertion of much untranslated Chinese, the rest of the world remains largely a blank, and the plot descends into cliché at the end, with gambling debts, villains and the heroine giving herself up to prostitution to save her brother, who remains an unmotivated, un-understood character who flits in and out of the story and whom we never find out enough about.
Maaza Mengiste The Shadow King (Norton hc 2019 hc 1st) (finished 15/9/20) Short list
A great, unusual subject, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 from the point of view of the Abyssinians (mainly) with plenty of research. But much of this wasted, as every time we come to a big event, the author chooses to go into mytho-poetic mode, and the details of what happened are mostly not there. Instead we get a huge amount of repetition of feelings, families, national myths, but hardly ever get inside any of the characters, or find out what actually happened with a few concrete details. Occasionally she gives us a scene where this isn’t so much the case, but we often have to get through the mythological overlay to work out what is really happening. The motives of the slave girl heroine, who apparently becomes a symbolic hero of the revolution (that is, after the war, when the Italians have been defeated) are very hard to fathom – but no more than the treatment she is shown to receive from her captors. Would have been better at half the length, and with some of the detail which should have been there. In part, this might be laziness on the part of the author, who might not have bothered to find out what the guns and weapons actually did, or how they were used, or what those herbs were which the women go searching the countryside for, or… One could go on listing omissions for a long time.
Very hard to finish. The subject, and the feminist theme might have been enough for it to make the shortlist. If so, shame!
Brandon Taylor Real Life (Daunt Books pb 2020) (finished 22/9/20) Short list
Fairly well written, with a very narrow focus, a group of friends (actually mostly work colleagues as well) working as Graduate researchers in biological science. All set over a weekend. The narrator (and author) is black with a southern background but now living in a northern midWest state (like the author). The friends meet, party, have gay sex, and engage in fairly boring conversations. The viewpoint character, Wallace, finds himself accepted among his white friends, but not completely (there is one Asian woman, also an outsider, barely makes an appearance). The focus is on friendship, what it is, how much it can be across the racial divide, how much it overlaps into sex. This is OK as far as it goes, but not much of the outside world is visible outside this small coterie, despite a bit of detail about the biological research, but only in the context of lab work detail, not what it means (if anything) beyond this work. The gay sex is prominent, but (rather routinely and barely motivated) this turns into violence and virtual rape, although the self-effacing Wallace remains someone acted on much more than an actor. In the end, it all feels rather self-indulgent: most of the characters are more names than individuals, and we’ve learnt almost nothing about what drives anyone, except a search for a (pretty undefined) happier life.
Diane Cook The New Wilderness (Oneworld hc 2020 1st UK)(finished 11/10/20) Short list
Sf, though not admitted. A survival novel in the titular New Wilderness, an area set aside (for reasons never made clear) from the City. The City (representing all cities we may think) is a place of pollution, poverty, disease, crime etc – all the ills we can see around us now, writ large. The protagonists – mother Bea, stepfather Glen, sick six year old child Agnes (the main viewpoint character) – volunteer for an experiment in the Wilderness (Glen’s project to save the life of Agnes) which requires them to live on the Wilderness land without any of civilization’s help, except the clothes and a few items they start out with, which of course soon deteriorate. They are accompanied by a small number of other volunteers, about 20 in all. Armed Rangers will ensure that they really live as nomads, living only on food they collect or hunt, without weapons or clothes except those they make themselves, and will direct them to keep moving, rather than set up any permanent camp, and report in at long intervals to Posts where their experiences will be collected via questionnaires. This is the basic setup, and where the whole thing breaks down, probably thanks to the author’s insufficient research. She claims to have researched early primitive Indian cultures but this seems to be book research rather than attempting to live like the people she describes.
Some problems: No-one ever seems to go very hungry in this nomadic world because hunters and collectors are remarkably proficient at hunting and gathering. A few hunters leave in the morning and invariably bring back a deer or a jack rabbit or three, with bows and stone-headed arrows the only weapons. And it only takes one trial at using a bow never touched before before a newcomer (proficient with a sling shot) can split an arrow in the target in half. And there’s always plenty of food – frogs, mushrooms –to be gathered as they trek along, no matter what the season. Stupid geese just sit there on the pond just waiting for the single sling shot to the neck. When they’ve been walking all day and haven’t hunted, deer jerky can be relied on, thanks to the portable smokers they also carry with them, along with a 40 pound iron cooking pot they stumbled upon. Imagine the amount of stuff which this small group, half children, are carrying with them, besides their sleeping gear, a bag of books, and bags of microwaste garbage which the Rangers insist they carry on to the next post rather than leaving it behind. After a few weeks they would be carrying nothing but garbage I think. Not to mention the fire which they also must carry with them (never discussed in the book) – all they need to do is stop and very soon the cooking fire is roaring – never any shortage of fuel, even when it’s been raining for days (though luckily for the author, this doesn’t appear to happen either). I could go on. The life she describes is a fantasy, and the backdrop is just that, a backdrop to the real story she’s interested in, the growing to adulthood of Agnes and her relations with the other members of her group, especially her mother Bea, a leader, and her stepfather Glen, an intellectual, and Carl, who becomes leader. These are drawn out at great length and with some sensitivity, although the group dynamics are often fuzzy and unclearly motivated. Some opportunities are well taken – Agnes’s first menstruation, but others are left undescribed, her first sexual encounter.
In the end, it’s clear that the whole thing is a parable, rather than attempt to describe any kind of actual future – a warning to us about the very real dangers of ignoring the environment. The City has become unlivable, the Private Lands (of Billionaires?) are maybe a fantasy, the Rangers are Bogey Men with guns who eventually cart off our attempted primitives back to the City, preserving the Wilderness – for what? Nothing is explained, but in a parable, really nothing has to be, does it? The idea wasn’t at all bad, but the execution has holes all over it.
This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.
Douglas Stuart plunges us into the slimy, putrified ghastly poverty of 1980s Glasgow and we are held there, as though under water, not allowed to surface for the entire 430 pages of the novel. It is a world of ill-fitting dentures, dirty underwear, the stink of vomit — yet I found it a compelling read. I am normally irritated when writers incorporate regional accents into their work. But the Glaswegian brogue enlivens every page and I loved it.
How did a 16 year-old boy come to be living alone in a dirty bedsit alongside down and out old men, mainly drunks, working in a supermarket deli and occasionally going to school? The book tells us how this came about.
It is about the relentless and unbreakable cycles of poverty and alcoholism.
Hugh, known as Shuggie, is the child of Agnes Bain’s second marriage. He is thus much younger than her other children. The husband (Shug) dumps his family in a remote and rundown housing estate out at Pithead but never lives there with them. A daughter finds refuge in a marriage that takes her to South Africa and Shuggie’s older brother, Leek, who was offered a place at university two years ago that he has been unable to take up, stays around to try to help young Shuggie ‘act normal’. But to the other kids Shuggie is a ‘wee poofter’ and is mercilessly teased. Agnes took to drink long before Shug dumped them at the Pithead estate. With an alcoholic’s desperation she uses whatever money she can get her hands on to satisfy her need — even after robbing the gas meter and the meter on the TV set, the family often has to go without a hot dinner. And yet, Agnes has a certain pride. When she’s not in a drunken stupor, the house is neat and tidy and she takes great trouble in her appearance, keeping her hair dyed and pantyhose unladdered. Shuggie has a desperate love for her, believing that he must be able to make her better. As a reviewer in The Guardian says, ‘something sadder than heroism is Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother’.
There is brief hope when Agnes joins AA and goes for a year without a drink. But a new boyfriend entices her back one evening at a posh golf club dinner, and after that it takes only a matter of hours for her to be back in an alcoholic stupor. She is ashamed of herself. There is a suicide attempt, but she is rescued by her sons.
The book would be unbearable were it not for the love that is the foundation of Shuggie’s devotion to his mother. Even when she dies (after a night out on the town, brought home by the police), Shuggie makes sure that Agnes looks as she would want. He puts fresh red lipstick on his dead mother’s lips and, for her funeral, improvises some earrings.