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.
I had one of those afternoons where I ended up wandering around the public library sipping lukewarm decaf coffee and waiting to meet someone. You know, one of those library visits when you’re not properly looking for a book to read (you already have a mass stack waiting at home), but you browse because you browse. And you end up finding on the spinning carousel a murder mystery set in Russia and shortlisted for the Booker Prize and you think, yeah, I’m in the mood for something plot driven. So you checkout A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
It’s a fast read and an enjoyable one, but probably not a novel I’ll remember reading (without this blog). Set in Moscow it follows an American expat lawyer as he falls in love with a Russian… some kind of woman. Written as a letter to his fiancee, the reader knows from the outset that all of the drama is safely in the past, but also that something dramatic and terrible happens because our protagonist, Nicholas, has withheld the story from his fiancee until now – just days before the wedding (which raises questions about the viability of their marriage, but whatever). (It’s also a fast read because it’s short: think big text and double spaced. So it’s satisfying to read over breakfast or on the bus because you finish a reading session and find you’re already halfway done. It would, in fact, be ideal airplane reading because you’d enjoy the thing and finish it on your flight.)
What exactly the dramatic and terrible something is propels reader speculation throughout and is, I suppose, the substance of the ‘mystery’: what has happened or will happen to Nicholas that will be so bad he’s had to withhold it for so long? I’ll admit that by the end of the novel I wasn’t convinced that what he did was all that terrible, more that he was so stupid as to not realize what he was doing until it was too late. As a fiancee I’d be far more concerned about marrying someone so daft than someone with a checkered past. Oh well.
So yeah. If you’re in an airport looking for something for a flight, or want a book to read while you ride a stationary bike and train for your summer triathlon season (not that I would know anything about reading under such conditions…), I wouldn’t argue against this one (which is clearly not the same thing as arguing for it).
It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading