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Shuggie Bain – the Booker winner and a tale of two covers

by | Nov 22, 2020 | News

Douglas Stuart’s powerful debut novel Shuggie Bain, winner of this year’s £50,000 Booker Prize, has two different jackets on each side of the Atlantic.  The British edition, published by Picador, has a highly symbolic cover – a young boy perches on a crucifix-like structure on waste ground in front of Glasgow tenement flats (at least we assume it is Glasgow: the picture credits do not say).  Cleverly, the boy’s body forms the trop strut of the cross, and the pole at the bottom becomes the gold dotted ‘i’ of the word Shuggie in the title.

The US edition, published by Grove Atlantic, makes more of the novel’s two main protagonists – the boy and his alcoholic mother, Agnes – and features a little boy in bed with his mother.

The UK cover is powerful and loaded with meaning.  The boy has a Christ-like stance atop what looks like a crucifix.  This Christian reference chimes well with the story’s themes of suffering and redemption, of optimism amid adversity.  Some may feel it misses a major character, the boy’s mother.  The US cover does feature both characters but is arguably a little sanitised and doesn’t capture the roughness of the family’s environment.

Whichever cover is favoured, the novel certainly presents a challenge for translators.  The text is shot through with Glaswegian and Scottish vernacular.  ‘Shuggie’, for example, is the Scottish version of the name Hugh.

Stuart’s win is significant because it comes at a time when concerns over diversity – in class as well as race – are prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the UK when it comes to class.  Speaking about the world of books and winning literary prizex, Stuart said: “Young boys like me growing up in 80s Glasgow, this wasn’t ever anything I would have dreamed of….Representation is so important, for young queer Scottish kids or working-class kids to see themselves.”

‘Queer’ is a word that has been reclaimed by the gay community.  Through the 1970s and 1980s it was a derogatory term, but in the west at least that is no longer the case.

At the virtual award ceremony Stuart, who now lives in Manhattan where he is a fashion designer, announced that he has finished a second novel – and that will put a smile on booksellers’ faces: Shuggie Bain was already the bestselling title on the Booker shortlist.

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