Stuart: A Life Backwards
by Alexander Masters
(Fourth Estate 290pp £12.99)
Stuart: A Life Backwards is a peculiar book. Billed as the story of “an extraordinary friendship between a reclusive writer and illustrator and a chaotic knife-wielding beggar”, it is part-biography, part-social commentary and, one suspects, at least part-fiction.
Stuart Shorter, its eponymous antihero, is a self-proclaimed outcast who has spent his 30-odd years limping from one institution to another; his stints in care and at Her Majesty’s Pleasure separated by bouts of homelessness, drug addiction, bungled robberies, and seemingly random explosions of violence.
Masters, who meets Stuart while working at a rough sleepers’ hostel in Cambridge, initially paints a rather stereotypical portrait of him. With his penchant for Stella and “convict curry”; his dyslexic diary entries; and his tattoo of the word “FUCK” on his right bicep; his character description seems eerily familiar. Yet, as the book progresses, and the unlikely duo grow closer, the author’s mounting fascination with his dysfunctional charge exposes all manner of surprises, some amusing, others deeply disturbing, about how Stuart became the way he is.
As the book’s title suggests, its story is told more or less in reverse; working back from Stuart’s latter-day existence as a bedsit-dwelling campaigner for “the Cambridge Two” (a pair of homelessness workers jailed for failing to prevent drug-taking at their hostel) to his troubled upbringing by his mother and stepfather in a dingy suburb. In Masters’ hands, this oft-used literary device is more than a gimmick: by unpeeling Stuart’s past, layer by layer, he evokes a man whose path to self-realisation - to finally working out how to live – only came after decades of wrong turns.
One of the book’s most striking features is that, despite his socially conscious credentials, Masters is far from a sentimental narrator. Early chapters adopt a markedly cynical tone, opening with a run-down of various “types” of homeless people, including those who “suffer from chronic poverty, brought on by illiteracy or social ineptness or what are politely called ‘learning disabilities’”. Later, on visiting Stuart in hospital, he observes “silent ladies” lying in “various states of pretend coma”.
This sardonic perspective is reflected in Stuart’s engaging self-deprecation. When it emerges that, contrary to Masters’ conviction that there is no real “reason” for Stuart’s erratic behaviour, he was the victim of sustained child abuse, the author’s tone softens. Yet Stuart himself dismisses this factor – pointing out that many others endure equally horrific childhoods but, unlike him, “turn out decent citizens”.
The book’s supporting cast share Stuart’s wry view of his own plight. Yet, as with most of the author’s observations, their criticisms are invariably tempered by signs of affection. Recalling her childhood, his sister remarks: “I remember at school we’d have to write in our weekend books what we’d done at the weekend. The others would have gone to the circus or the seaside and I would have been to prison to see Stuart.”
But it is at the very close, as we recover from the last-minute killer punch, that this accomplished first book delivers its finest juxtaposition of mood. As the life lived backwards comes to a brutal, ironic end, a sweetly uplifting epilogue somehow manages to put a triumphant foot forward.
James Morrison © 2007
This review was previously published in The Literary Review