BookerTalk

6 Degrees From Shuggie Bain to Electra

This month’s 6 Degrees of Separation kicks off with Shuggie Bain, the most recent winner of The Booker Prize, an award I used to follow avidly but which has lost some of its appeal for me in the last few years. Hence why I haven’t (yet) read this debut novel by the Scottish author Douglas Stuart.

Stuart’s novel tells the story of a young boy growing up with an alcoholic mother in Glasgow, a city feeling the full weight of the economic and social stagnation of 1980s. Despite the bleakness of this world, one of the emotions that sines through the novel is the love Shuggie has for his proud but damaged mother.

That relationship immediately put me in mind of Not Thomas by Sara Gethin, the tale of a child neglected by his mother and left alone in the house unfed, cold and afraid while she goes out in search of drugs. She never shows him any affection, the only love he receives is from the young teacher in his school. Yet Tomas (the Welsh form of Thomas) still loves his Mammy and longs for her to come home.

It’s a heartbreakingly tough story that has the emotional intensity of another child narrative which features a five year old boy: Room by Emma Donaghue. The young child in this case is Jack, born as the result of a rape after his mother was abducted and held captive in a tiny room. “Ma” devotes every scrap of her mental stamina to teaching, nurturing and entertaining her boy while planning how they can make their escape.

Their room is a form of prison so I’m using that as a link to a novel which is partly set in an actual prison. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. She is sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son. The novel traces her life and shows how she ends up a victim of injustice.

Another novel that explores social injustice is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Her focus is slightly different in that she looks at the topic from the point of view of its effect on a marriage. The novel garnered a lot of praise when it was published: selected by former US President Barak Obama as one of his favourite books of 2019 and chosen as the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019.

By coincidence I’ve just finished reading the novel that won the prize the following year. Home Fire by Kamila Shamisie is a terrifically powerful novel that revolves around orphaned siblings Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz who is groomed into radicalism. His connection with ISIS causes international tension, a break down in sisterly love and conflict between the private and the political worlds for a high-powered politician.

Shamsie’s exploration of the clash between society, family and faith is a contemporary reworking of the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Another of his plays – Electra similarly focuses on a brother/sister relationship and tells of a bitter struggle for justice by Electra and her brother Orestes over the murder of their father Agamemnon. I’m choosing the Euripedes version of this play for my final link however since that’s the one I read as part of my Classics Club project .

And so we come to the end of a chain that’s moved from poverty and despair in a Scottish city to revenge and murder among the Greek royal family. We’ve tackled miserable childhoods and injustice and touched on terrorism.

If you fancy giving this a go, hop over to the blog of our host Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

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