Scottish writer Douglas Stuart wins $86K Booker Prize for debut novel Shuggie Bain

The award annually recognizes the best original novel written in the English language published in the U.K.
Shuggie Bain is the debut novel by Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart. (Grove Atlantic/Martyn Pickersgill)

Scottish American writer Douglas Stuart has won the 2020 Booker Prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain.

The award, worth £50,000 ($86,990 Cdn), annually recognizes the best original novel written in the English language published in the U.K.

Shuggie Bain was inspired by Stuart's own childhood, growing up in gay and in poverty in the 1980s in Glasgow, while being raised by a mother struggling with addiction. 

Shuggie Bain is dedicated to Stuart's own mother, who died from alcoholism when Stuart was 16 years old.

"My mother is in every page of this book, and without her I wouldn't be here and my work wouldn't be here," said Stuart, who declared himself "absolutely stunned" to win.

The novel's sweep, vivid characters and unflinching look at poverty have been compared to the work of Charles Dickens.

After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Stuart moved to the United States and launched a career in fashion before turning to writing. 

The novel, inspired by Stuart’s upbringing in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has received wide acclaim for its raw, gritty portrayal of addiction and growing up in poverty. But should you read it? Day 6 Becky Toyne offers her review. 8:08

"Shuggie Bain is destined to be a classic — a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values. The heart-wrenching story tells of the unconditional love between Agnes Bain — set on a descent into alcoholism by the tough circumstances life has dealt her — and her youngest son. Shuggie struggles with responsibilities beyond his years to save his mother from herself, at the same time as dealing with burgeoning feelings and questions about his own otherness. Gracefully and powerfully written, this is a novel that has impact because of its many emotional registers and its compassionately realised characters. The poetry in Douglas Stuart's descriptions and the precision of his observations stand out: nothing is wasted.

"Shuggie Bain can make you cry and make you laugh — a daring, frightening and life-changing novel," jury chair, editor and literary critic Margaret Busby, said in a statement. 

Lee Child and Sameer Rahim, writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay and translator Emily Wilson rounded out this year's jury.

Stuart was one of four debut novelists on the shortlist: the other three were The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, Real Life by Brandon Taylor and Burnt Sugar, by Avni Doshi.

The other finalists were The Shadow King Maaza Mengiste and This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

The winner was announced Thursday at a livestreamed ceremony in London that included remote appearances by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and former U.S. President Barack Obama.


In a video message, Obama praised the power of fiction "to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, understand their struggles, and imagine new ways to tackle complex problems and effect change."

162 books were submitted for consideration for 2020. 

No Canadians were recognized for the 2020 prize. Since 2013, authors from any nationality have been eligible.

Stuart is the second Scottish writer to win the prize. The first was James Kelman in 1994, who won for How Late It Was, How Late.

In fact, it was Kelman that partially inspired Stuart's own writing career. He told the Booker Prize in an interview on their website that How Late It Was, How Late was one of the first time he had seen people like him and who spoke like him represented in literature.

Margaret Atwood shared the 2019 prize with British novelist Bernardine Evaristo. Atwood was recognized for her novel The Testaments, and Evaristo for her novel Girl, Woman, OtherThey split the prize money evenly.

Two other Canadians other than Atwood have won the prize since its inception in 1969: Michael Ondaatje in 1992 for The English Patient and Yann Martel in 2002 for Life of Pi.

With files from the Associated Press

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