Fiction is not real life. We can love our characters or not love them. We don’t have to form an opinion, take offence, or come down on one side, the way we might have to in our politics and even our every day decisions. What we do get however, is permission to imagine other worlds, events and people’s lives.
Every year, The Booker Prize Foundation offers the Booker Prize for the best work of fiction in English, published in the UK and Ireland, and the Booker International Prize for the best book translated into English, published in the UK and Ireland.
‘Shuggie Bain’, written by Douglas Stuart and published by Pan Macmillan, won the Booker Prize in 2020. The judges felt the novel possessed all the qualities of a great work of fiction.
It has place. It brings alive the desperate situations in which people found themselves in the Glasgow of the 1980s, where unemployment was at 32 percent.
The characters are strong. Shuggie (Hugh) is an eight-year-old boy, trying to look after his mother Agnes, a despairing alcoholic.
The story is compelling. Agnes wants what all mothers want, love, a home, a loving family for her child. She refuses shame and to conform in the face of their tragic lives. The relationships between the female characters are powerful. They may be allies or enemies, but they respect each other and their individual and collective struggles. The book will immerse the reader in a particular time and place, yet the universal truths it beautifully explores are still relevant today.
‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’, by Shokoofeh Azar, was originally written in Farsi. Published in English by Europa Editions, it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020. It is set in Iran, in the period after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the royal reign collapsed and a series of events led the country to vote to become an Islamic republic in a national referendum.
The story is narrated by the ghost of 13-year-old Bahar, whose family fled Tehran to a village in the country, hoping to preserve some of the freedoms they see collapsing around them in post-revolutionary chaos. The reader is taken with that family on a journey that reveals not only the beauty of their inherited Zoroastrian (one of the world’s oldest religions) folklore and beliefs, but also the brutality of the new political regime. ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ shows the power of imagination to make sense of the world, and the importance of storytelling in this process.
Both these books are desperately sad and tragic at times, but they offer an intimate view into other worlds, events and lives. We see hope, and our ability to imagine another world different from our own, as the antidote to tragedy. Happy imaginings.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.