By Alexander Masters
Reviewed by Alan Green
In this unique biography Stuart’s life story spirals backwards. We meet him as a homeless man living on the edge of society. As his life unfolds in reverse we trace this chaotic human being back to the “happy-go-lucky little boy” he once was.
The clever structure adds an element of mystery to an already moving story. You want to read on because you feel that you are slowly getting near to the heart of the questions that float around someone like Stuart. How do people end up living on the streets? How do some people end up in such a mess?
Stuart himself suggested the reverse structure as a way to turn the first draft (which he found boring) into a bestseller “like what Tom Clancy writes”. His solution was to add that element of mystery, to make readers see his life as a detective story.
“Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.” – Stuart Shorter
The unlikely friendship between Stuart and the author Alexander Masters is an important part of the book. Alexander was working as a fundraiser for a homeless charity when they first met. The two managers of the charity were sent to jail for five years because some of the people in their homeless shelter were selling heroin to other guests. Supporters of the charity got together to organise a campaign for their release.
That crisis gave Stuart a chance to reveal previously unexpected intelligence and eloquence. It also gave him and Alexander an opportunity to build the friendship which made this book possible. Their struggle for justice is a sub-plot that throws up some interesting scenes and shows that despite everything they had a very real bond.
The secrets and the scars that are revealed as we wind back through the years are sometimes painful to read about. His childhood experiences certainly help to explain his anger, his violent streak, and his general inability to operate as a normal person. There are points where this definitely isn’t an easy read.
Don’t expect to always find Stuart likeable. Alexander makes it clear that he was sometimes a difficult or even dangerous person to be around.
On the other hand there is a streak of gallows humour which helps to lift this book above other tales of unhappy lives. And part of that comes from Stuart’s own wit and bursts of insightfulness. The contrast between his outsider’s view of the world and Alexander’s perspective creates moments that will make you smile. Sadly those moments also underline how hard it is for someone like Stuart to escape the chaos.
The central mystery can’t be tied up as neatly as it would be if this really was a detective story. Stuart rejects the idea that it’s possible to come up with a tidily wrapped up explanation of why his live went quite so badly wrong.
‘Stuart: A life backwards’ will give you real insight into how life can push people over the edge, socially and mentally. Perhaps its greatest strength is that by revealing some of the pain that most of us walk past too easily it will stop us from accepting easy explanations. Once you’ve read it you won’t be able to accept lazy answers to the problems of homelessness.