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Booker Prize 2020: Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain Wins

Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart has won the 2020 Booker prize for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, a book about a boy dealing with his mother’s alcoholism.

Based in 1981 Glasgow, Shuggie Bain has been described as the “story of an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents”. Stuart, whose own mother suffered from alcoholism, says the book isn’t autobiographical but is inspired by his own life. Interestingly, the book was reportedly rejected by 30 editors before it was picked up by publishers Grove Atlantic in the US and Picador in the UK.

Stuart is the fourth writer in Booker history to win for a debut novel. The other three include Keri Hulme with The Bone People in 1985, Arundhati Roy with The God of Small Things in 1997, and George Saunders with Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017. Stuart is also only the second Scottish writer to win the £50,000 award after James Kelman won it in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late.


In an interview with The Booker Prizes, Stuart said that Kelman’s book, which has subtle hints of political struggle and survival, changed his life because it was “one of the first times I saw my people, my dialect, on the page.” Talking about his journey, Stuart said, “It feels unreal. I was a working-class kid who had a different career and came to writing late. This validation of the work is life-changing. I hope it inspires others with working-class stories.”

Bernardine Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize in 2019 for Girl, Woman, Other congratulated Stuart and said, “The winning novel stole my heart when I read it.”

Nicola Sturgeon, Minister of Scotland said, “Shuggie Bain is a raw, searing and beautifully tender novel. Such a worthy winner.”

The novel is dedicated to Stuart’s mother, who died of alcoholism when he was 16.

Stuart’s next book Loch Awe, a story about two teenage boys falling in love despite territorial and sectarian divisions, is also set in Glasgow. Stuart says in the The Booker Prizes interview, “[Loch Awe] takes a look at toxic masculinity and the pressure we place on working-class boys to ‘man up’. I wanted to show how young men growing up in extreme poverty can be some of the most victimized and overlooked people in British society. I am always looking for tenderness in the hardest places.”

The Booker Prize 2020 jury is comprised of Lee Child, Sameer Rahim, Emily Wilson, and Lemn Sissay, with Margaret Busby as chair.

The ceremony, which was hosted following social distancing norms, was broadcast live from the Roundhouse in London. It included addresses by the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles and former US President Barack Obama.

This year’s finalists also included Dubai-based Indian-origin writer Avni Doshi for her debut novel Burnt Sugar, Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga for This Mournable Body, Diane Cook for The New Wilderness, Maaza Mengiste for The Shadow King, and Brandon Taylor for Real Life.


Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, a story about love and betrayal between a mother and a daughter, was released in India as Girl in White Cotton and has been published in more than 20 languages. TheBookerPrizes describes the book as the story of a “relationship where filial resentment at a mother’s choice of an ashram and a free-love advocating guru over a more hands-on parenting still bubbles even as the mother’s mental faculties fade.”

Cook’s The New Wilderness revolves around a mother and daughter surviving in a world after it is hit by an environmental catastrophe. Danarembga’s This Mournable Body, the third novel in a trilogy that started with Nervous Conditions and was followed by The Book of Not, tells a story of poverty, striving, race, in modern Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, Maaza Mengiste has delved into the role of women soldiers during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 with The Shadow King. Taylor with his Real Life explores the gay culture and racial prejudice among American doctoral students.