There is an article in today’s Telegraph which tells the story of this year’s Booker Prize very well. It was written by Cal Revely-Calder.
Mr Revely-Calder’s website is cryptic. It says that he is ‘writing in books + art + culture’, that he is ‘commissioning editor, the telegraph; contributing editor, minor literature(s)’ ; ‘2017 frieze writer’s prize + 2014 guardian student critic of the year’ and ‘ bylines in artforum, frieze, the TLS, the spectator, apollo, the white review + others’.
In the Telegraph article he says, “This year’s Booker Prize was unusual: we approached it with suspicion. Last time, it was a shambles. All the judges must do is pick one outstanding novel. It was thus historic, and tedious, when they failed in 2019. Of their two “joint winners”, one was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – a lifetime-achievement award in disguise – and the other was Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which was merely, if complexly, bad.
“Thirteen months on, you might have feared the worst. (Would they let everyone win, as with the much-maligned Turner Prize?) So what a relief that, this evening, the Booker regained its ruthlessness, and sense. Douglas Stuart deserves the £50,000: his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was the standout book of the year.
“Only his second published work, it drew on Stuart’s own Eighties youth. A little boy in Glasgow’s filthy tenements, he’s beset by his mother, an alcoholic, and his burgeoning sexuality. It’s a searing story of Special Brew and vomit at dawn, and the steadfastness of a child’s love. Few novelists can write a woman like Agnes: wretched enough to break your heart, but with a drunk’s grim selfishness. Built on this harrowing portrait, Shuggie Bain has excoriating power.
“Of the six novels on the shortlist, four were debuts, and none of the novelists was a “household name”. Good: the purpose of the Booker is to broaden the public’s taste. This year’s group had a psychological bent, with narrators tussling with their own dreams, and their societies’ and families’ demands. There were the usual silly complaints: Stuart was the only Briton shortlisted, for example. So what? The list was the strongest for years: quality won out.
“The absent giant, if you believe the headlines, was Hilary Mantel: with The Mirror and the Light, her Cromwell trilogy might have won three Prizes from three. But that decision was right: the novel was prolix, and Mantel doesn’t need publicity. (Atwood said the same of herself last year; Evaristo, she argued, might have won for that reason alone.)
“I had a few doubts about the longlist, admittedly. It left out Actress by Anne Enright, a haunted, heartbroken work – if not quite as rich as The Gathering, for which she won the Prize in 2007. Strange, too, was the lack of Ali Smith’s Summer, the end of her ‘seasonal’ quartet; one of Britain’s most playful novelists has been overlooked again.
“But these are trivial gripes. With the exception, perhaps, of Diane Cook – The New Wilderness is a poorly-plotted dystopian tale – I’d recommend any of the final six. Stuart’s victory is a just reward, but all of them will benefit; book sales were flying already, with a public confined by police to the couch. There’ll be no champagne flowing in Bloomsbury, but festivities or no, this marks the Booker’s return to form. Shuggie Bain is an extraordinary novel, which will scramble your heart and expand your mind. Buy it, read it, and weep.”