Book Review

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Stuart: A Life Backwards is a memoir of a drug-addicted, alcoholic homeless man called Stuart, written by his friend Alexander Masters, who met him through his work with a homeless charity. Stuart killed himself just before the book was published, and Masters tells his story 'backwards' as this is supposed to make the book read like a Tom Clancy thriller: who or what killed Stuart? It sounds like a fascinating premise for a book. Homelessness is an issue everyone has an opinion on whether they actually know anything about it or not, and a story about ‘what it’s really like’ from the inside would surely be welcome. It also sounds like it would make a refreshing change from the usual “rags to riches” – or “everyday life to celebrity” – memoirs, which always seem somehow to fail to mention the fact that the vast majority of people on this planet do not achieve the ‘success’ they preach, no matter how hard they work, or how many sacrifices they make, or how they hone their talents. But Masters’s book, unfortunately, is a failure on every level. I agree with its subject, Stuart, who found an earlier draft “bollocks boring” (it hasn't improved).

Some reviewers of the book said they were expecting a dull, ‘worthy’, or ‘politically correct’ story, but were relieved and delighted to find that it was instead funny and honest. I must have had the opposite expectation. I was indeed expecting a book that was ‘worthy’ of its subject matter – that would attempt either to make sense of homelessness, or provide a sympathetic account of what being homeless is actually like. And funny? Well, no, calling troubled homeless people criminals and psychos is just not funny, and if that’s political correctness gone mad, then count me on the side of political correctness. Honest? Liberal reviewers perhaps found an analysis that chimed with their ideology ‘honest’, but I found it politically incompetent and offensive. Not having anything to say about the origins or causes of homelessness is hailed as avoiding ‘easy answers’, or as respecting the difficulties of each individual case, when in fact it is just having nothing to say at all. At one point in the story, Masters writes: "I don't know what to say. I fall back on platitudes." That should be printed in big bold letters on the cover.

The only thing of interest at all in the book is what Stuart himself says about his experiences. But this is obscured because Masters refuses to take that point of view seriously – indeed, he cannot seem to let a comment by Stuart pass without ridiculing it. He views Stuart as a petulant child whose actions make him his own worst enemy and who brings his problems on himself. He views homeless as a stubborn stain that just won’t come out, no matter how much the forces of good – the government, the police, the social services, charities – scrub at it. When Stuart is attacked by the police and beaten up by prison screws, this must be because he deserved it or had done something wrong. When the Home Secretary is confronted by a protest about the jailing of two charity workers, Masters is embarrassed that the campaign's representatives turned out to be horrible scummy homeless types. He is even more horrified, as a ‘monarchist’, when those same representatives express a political point of view. When Stuart gets angry or goes into a rage, this is because he is being mad or childish. Stuart's view that the intervention of social workers, doctors and police and so on is as much about social control by a 'system' with other concerns than that of philanthropy is obviously paranoid nonsense as far as Masters is concerned. In short, Masters is, as Stuart rightly says, a "fucking, wanky, middle-class cunt-fuck". Spot on, Stuart. What a shame he didn’t find a writer for his story with the same talent for accuracy and brevity.

In conclusion, then, Stuart is excruciatingly badly written, patronising, boring, and fails to say anything important about the major social and political issue it is supposedly addressing. The reviewers loved it and it won the Guardian First Book Award.

-- Reviewed by Stuart Watkins on 17/01/2006

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0007200374
ISBN-13: 9780007200375
Publisher: Perennial
Publication Date: 01/02/2006
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 304

Readers Comments

  1. Shivani says... Wednesday 09 April 2008

    I started reading the book simply because it was there. I didn't buy it. I had heard nothing of it, and didn't read the reviews.
    I wasn't impressed with how it started off. I thought it was going to be a book just glorifying horrible and extreme displays of violence and atrocities.
    I was pleasantly surprised by the way the novel developed. I don't believe at any point the author tried to indicate this book explains homelessness. It would be silly to expect that from a biography.
    What it did provide was an insight into a world that many of us are completely unfamiliar with, and are very critical of. I appreciated Alexander's cynical, and at times depreciating comments - it injected reality to the novel, since these are exactly the things most of us think in the same situation.
    I did not get the impression the author ever looked down on Stuart, or anything of the sort.
    I enjoyed the book because it highlights a problem in society, and it gave a human face to something many of us try to distance ourselves from. It was touching, and at the same time very realistic, and gritty.
    In the end, the book was never about the author, or his personality. It was about Stuart and his story. It was very well developed and written, and in my mind, is completely deserving of whatever accolades and awards it received.

  2. Chris Carthew says... Thursday 22 July 2010

    Sorry, but i really feel Mr Watkins has missed the point in his review of the book. He seems to be saying "poor Stuart, why doesn't Masters simply put all your views down on paper and intellectually debate them."
    Well, here's the thing. Stuart was well aware that his life was 'different.' Masters shared the guys life for sometime; he ate his cooking, stayed at his grotty flat, even bought his car off him. This comes through in the story and the reader is aware that Stuart is a human living by different rules. For the author to share that life makes the story of Stuart all the more compelling.
    For the reviewer to find this boring, he is displaying EXACTLY the kind of upper/middle class ignorance that Stuart loathed. Stuart didn't want the book to say "anything important about the major social and political..." blah blah. It was just his story, written by a man who became a friend. And it is compelling, well written and thought provoking.
    What is it they say about good books; something about needing to know what happens next? Well, if you don't feel that way reading this book, then you have no real interest in human life.

  3. Billie Jean says... Wednesday 01 December 2010

    I believe Stuart to be an entertaining gripping book, Stuart is a prime example of what is wrong with Britain and Masters presents the issues addressed well including black humour combined with the gritty truth. This book is the best example of true fiction out there and you truly find it difficult to put the book down. I feel that what this article has said about the book is completely wrong, it presents a newly developing idea of theraputic rebalance of an induvidual through expression and the non chronological idea gives the book an additional twist that many books lack.

  4. Am David

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