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.
What? Two reviews in two days? It’s because Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife is impossible to put down. (And because I am between series on tv) The short story collection has common threads in Lao immigrant experiences of labour and family, but also of something like dignity and something like connection. I say something like because I’ve been lately trying to explain more and more abstractions to the kid and realizing how a word like dignity connotes so much more than ‘respect’ and ‘connection’ so much more than ‘linked’ so you’ll have to trust me that this collection makes an argument for the dignity of labour and the vitality of touch.
It is a collection free in its imagination and particular in detail. Reciting a list of the range of plot points and settings is the stuff of book jackets and you can take my word that the stories are wide ranging. Instead I’ll share the moments I liked best were of children experiencing the gutting mixture of mortification and gratitude that comes with parents making sacrifices and doing their best and yet – to the child – never quite doing or being what they hoped. And of characters who tolerate the impossible – e.g. living with your wife’s adulterer – because action would be admitting this impossible thing was happening and might necessitate a response.
The writing is exceptional; the stories swift and absorbing. Thanks to the non-book-book-club for the conversation and for K. for putting the book in my hands.
We read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day with book club, and I’m 100% sure we should read Klara and the Sun together, too, because there are so many moments of ‘what would you do if’ that are both fascinating and (for the moment) speculative (but carry the near-future quality of only a matter of time). Mostly I can’t begin to answer these on my own during the length of nap I have to write this, and I am even more confident that having some wine and a snack sampler would make my answers better. So I offer you instead the questions I might ask and try to answer should we be gathering (with *spoilers):
- You have the choice to ‘lift’ your child by genetically tinkering to make them much smarter. Doing so carries some small risk of a lifetime of illness and death. Not doing so destines them to a life of subpar education/employment and social ostracism. What do you do?
- Your child dies. You could purchase a robot that will resemble your child in every way from appearance, to mannerisms, to speech. What do you do?
- Can a person be replaced in the most essential way by a robot – like not in the space of work, but in the literal replacement of a human? What qualities of human-ness cannot be replaced, if any?
- What and how is a ‘god’ or higher power constituted? What acts of faith and what proof of divinity do we need in order to conclude greater forces at play?
So yes. It’s an excellent book with an incredibly interesting narrator, fascinating questions to figure out and all kinds of unexpected and delightful plot moments. And given my best loved book club is still on hiatus, if you have thoughts on these questions or others… get in touch. xo