Several unusual things have happened in my life recently. Firstly, I have been gripped by non-fiction, secondly, I watched my sister-in-law abseil down a 100ft building and thirdly, I have shifted my exercise routine to involve real outdoor running. I'm not sure which of these is the most surprising...
I must confess at this point, that as we left the house to watch the abseil, I asked hubby if it would be okay to bring my book with me. With sister-in-law's descent scheduled between 4 and 5pm, I was expecting some "hanging around!" I also knew that lots of family would be there, and that reading, despite its many joys, is still essentially antisocial! So, it was with some reluctance that I left the last 100 pages of Stuart: A Life Backwards on my kitchen side.
This book is a challenge to preconceptions about homelessness, drug addiction and all the social structures erected to try to "tackle" it. Indeed, in a paraphrase of Stuart, we can't fix it because we can't possibly think like he does. Those who sincerely want to help are still essentially outside the experiences that a) make people homeless and b) govern the thinking of the outdoor dweller. Even the phrase outdoor dweller is middle class and pretentious, arising from my desire not to repeat the noun, homeless.
And it is partly this tension between biographer, Alexander Masters and his subject, Stuart Shorter that makes the book so compelling. At times I loathed Masters and his insistence on deriving answers when Stuart made it clear that there were none. His education and class are out of place in Stuart's world, and yet they make an unlikely and sincere friendship. It is not a friendship of equals however, it is Stuart who is written as having the control. He rejected Masters' first manuscript as "bollocks boring" and so Masters rewrote it. Indeed, he rewrote it along the lines Stuart suggested.
So A Life Backwards is born. Masters begins at the end and takes us back to Stuart's childhood. The "happy-go-lucky" boy was subsumed by the lad who yearned to escape his family home, sniff glue, take drugs and commit seemingly random acts of rage. At Stuart's prompting, Masters rearranged and edited his first draft so that it read like a thriller, working out what had murdered the happy child that pre-existed the "ex-homeless, ex-junkie, psychopath" that he became.
This biography gives context and insight into Stuart and into homelessness, government policies and sociology. The background of the unjust imprisonment of two directors of a day hostel creates much of this context, and this, in itself, is worthy of reading. But it is Stuart and the incidents of his life that drive the narrative. Borrowing from fiction, Masters hooks readers in the first 6 pages. The shock at the end of chapter 1 compels you to keep reading. The detail that you yearn for following this early revelation does not take place until the epilogue.
It is a journey well worth taking. I must add here that the language in this book is ripe throughout, ranging from casual insertion of expletives to pepper everyday speech and rising (or descending) to shocking vernacular when detailing Stuart's rages. Masters necessarily reconstructs Stuart. He has to edit him in order to publish him. The swearing is elemental to Stuart's idiolect. If it had been erased then it wouldn't be possible to "hear" him. Masters replicates a convincing voice, and one which Stuart only rarely objects to.
This is another aspect of the book that I loved. Though a life backwards, it is also a life in the present. The story shifts from incidents in Stuart's life to the relationship between him and Masters. I would hesitate to use the term friendship, but there is warmth and respect, and it is largely mutual.
Respect and sympathy for a psychopath are unexpected outcomes of this book. It made me re-evaluate my judgments; indeed, it made me uncomfortably aware of them. We judge without meaning to, we make assumptions when we have no right to do so. Stuart: A life Backwards will break down preconceptions and challenge thinking.
This is a biography that will amuse you, upset you and shock you. Stuart has a dark comedy and wit evident in his exchanges with Masters. He lacks education but he is clearly intelligent. He has integrity and morality. He can command an audience whose qualifications he has never even heard of. He is complex, and he is astute enough to realise that there will never be any answers.
In the first chapter Masters informs us that Stuart can pinpoint the exact moment that he changed to become the man who wanders, who commits crime, who is addicted and is subject to violent rage, both against himself and others. This book provides a detailed trail of how and why he changed. Well executed and deeply moving, this biography peels back a window on life that we mostly prefer to keep veiled.