Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize Winner, Shuggie Bain, is the sort of fat novel you crawl inside. It’s not particularly plot-y, but it is an entirely realized world of a falling apart family and a boy realizing himself. It opens with fifteen year old Shuggie on his own in a dire rooming house, before flashing back to his years as a young child growing up with his alcoholic mum, Agnes, and his serially cheating dad, Shug. Plus his half-siblings who are busy protecting themselves and his grandparents who blame themselves for Agnes’ behaviour, but aren’t equipped to recognize what needs to be done to protect Shuggie. We leap around in time following Shuggie – and Agnes – as the gay son navigates a world with parents who do little, but are somehow still sympathetic.
With that, the novel unfolds around Shuggie and what we can reasonably hope for his life given what surrounds him. And maybe that’s what makes it such a claustrophobic novel. The sort where you where you know from the opening pages that nothing good will happen. Thatcher’s Glasgow sort of nothing good will happen.
But the writing. It’s such beautiful writing.
So maybe if you’re ready – 2020 was probably not the right time to read it – you could give it a read.
Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were is beautiful. I mean, the story is crushing: an American oil company destroys the (fictional) village of Kosawa in an unnamed country in Africa by poisoning the water and land such that the children are dying, the land can’t be farmed, and the villagers must leave or die. Over the forty-odd years it takes to slowly and apathetically destroy the village and its people, the reader witnesses the company and its cooperating government shift from outright denials of the evidence of the environmental ruin to agreement of cause and effect but with a simultaneous decision – supported by law – to do nothing. The reader might think – as the people of Kosawa do – that the swing from denial to consent of crime might result in restitution, but such an expectation, as we should have known, is ridiculous. No one and nothing can hold the powerful to account.
Except? Well, maybe. We do witness Thula, the young heroine of the village, journey to America to study in an aim to save her village and people. With her return to Kosawa and her commitment to lead a peaceful overthrow of the government, the reader begins to hope that maybe some change will come that will restore Kosawa. I won’t totally spoil things for you, but I would say that the novel exploits novelistic structure to build up hope and expectation in ways that are clever, if ultimately frustrating.
The narrative voice shifts among the characters in Thula’s family as we experience from all points of view the ebb of hope and despair, the belief that change might be possible and the acceptance of individual self interest as the most powerful motivator. While it has no connection – at all – to vaccines or the vaccine flap, this thread in the novel – what are we willing to do for the wider good, what are we willing to sacrifice for our communities – did resonate with this reader in thinking about the current moment and the need to see past our own self interest for just. a. second.
The best thing going in the book is the beautiful writing. I did find the plot a bit slow, and the characters a bit sparse in their development. But with the book focusing on the indictment of oil, the call for environmental justice and communal action, and the condemnation of the wealthy and willfully ignorant (like me), I suppose I can deal.
Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching is good. But it’s also annoyingly insistent on its message: gentrification is bad.
It’s good for its play with genre – it’s something of a mystery, something of suspense, something of a straight realist character novel. Good, too, for not being fussy with its racial politics – in the sense it isn’t trying to be comforting to a white reader, instead just explaining clearly how the arrival of white people in historically black neighbourhoods causes direct and indirect harm.
I guess the ways it is annoying extend beyond that repeated hammering on the effects of gentrification. It’s also bad for the romance plot – like there’s this sex scene that I was just like: where did this come from and it was so sexy. Not that I can’t read a sex scene! Just that it felt out of place in the tone and pacing of the rest of the book.
So I’m not convinced this is a story that needed to be a novel. A rewrite as a short story would be interesting? Maybe.
After enjoying No Such Creature so much I got the first in the Cardinal detective series by Canadian crime writer (as the internet calls him) Giles Blunt. Four or five pages in I got worried: the murder victim is a young indigenous woman in a remote northern community. Okay, I think, so much crime fiction is about murdering young women and splashing their bodies about, let’s see where this goes. No where good. The detectives talk about how the “Indian” community is “different” and “not like us” and drops in Windigo stories and haunting spirits. Granted the novel pivots to killing other non-indigenous characters (men, too!), but the initial dive into the detective and the community is one of stereotypes and racist tropes. And then also that ugly women are destined to be unloved, unloveable and consequently MURDERERS. Sooooo… pass.