I don't even know how to begin reviewing Stuart: A life Backwards. Well, I guess I should start at the beginning - which, of course, is actually the end of Stuart's story. Don't worry, it's not as confusing as it sounds. The book opens with Stuart Shorter, an "ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath", telling the author of his biography, Alexander Masters, that it's "bollocks boring". Alexander, having worked on the manuscript in question for years, is understandably frustrated, and questions Stuart's expertise (or lack thereof) on the matter. Stuart's response? "Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards."
Thankfully, Alexander took Stuart's advice and rewrote the book, and so begins a journey back through time to discover not just the cause of the death of Stuart's innocence, but of Stuart himself - he died of probable suicide before the second version of the manuscript was complete. I know, it sounds completely dreary and depressing - and it completely is at times - but more often than that it's totally entertaining and even inspiring. Which sounds a bit morbid in the same paragraph as suicide, but I guess it shows just how strange - and brilliant - this book is. A bit like Stuart himself.
In theory, Stuart shouldn't work as a hero. He's vulgar, violent and a little bit (OK, a lot) mad, spending much of the story either homeless or in prison. But he's also charming, wise and strangely moral in his own way. It's this paradoxical nature that makes him so fascinating and, ultimately, likable. In Alexander's capable hands, Stuart's character jumps from the page, his voice captured perfectly so that you feel as though he's right in front of you.
One of the reasons Alexander seems to have been able to capture Stuart so well is because he appears to have developed a strong and genuine friendship with his subject. Some might question how appropriate this is for a biographer, but it works. In fact, one of the loveliest aspects of the book is the unlikely friendship between the middle class, sheltered writer and the irrepressible vagabond. That's not to say it's an easy relationship. Alexander is frequently uncomfortable in Stuart's company, and even more frequently irritated. But through his honest and amusing account of his reactions and thoughts, Alexander makes Stuart accessible and real. These humourous encounters also act as much-needed breaks from the flashbacks to Stuart's earlier life, which gets darker and more disturbing the further back we go.
You can probably guess what happens, although perhaps not all of it. Let's just say it's horrific and graphic and made me feel physically ill. While it makes Stuart all the more inspiring, it also reinforces the great tragedy of his tale. If he was that brilliant, in his own way, after all he'd been through - imagine the kind of man he would have been if the "boy he was" hadn't been murdered.
Excuse me while I go pick up the broken pieces of my shattered heart from the floor.
"If Stuart is a freak... it is because he has had the superhuman strength not to be defeated by this isolation. It is because he has had the almost unbelievable social adroitness to be able to fit in smoothly with an educated, soft-skinned person like myself and not make me frightened half to death. If Stuart's a freak, I salute freaks."
“For a moment, I believe, there was a stillness. A shocking realization by all things - beetles, dormice, the spiders spinning their webs in the moonlight, even the hot metal of the tracks and the wind in the trees - that Death had just shrieked past like a stinking black eagle and made off with a remarkable man."
- Read about Stuart's sister Zoe's experiences and reaction to the book here (spoiler warning if you haven't read the book).
- Stuart: A Life Backwards was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. It looks amazing. Hopefully I can track down a copy soon - if I do, I'll post a review!