Stuart: A Life Backwards
Alexander Masters’ book is a backwards biography of a homeless addict, Stuart Shorter, who lived on the streets of Cambridge. Tellingly, the backwards element was Stuart’s idea. Having derided Masters’ early attempts as ‘bollocks boring,’ Shorter encouraged him to write it ‘like a murder mystery,’ not an academic study but an urgent, emotional quest to discover, as Stuart poignantly wondered, ‘what murdered the boy I was.’
There’s a lot of fun in Stuart‘s often horrendous story- a lot of Ian Dury-style swearing, huge dollops of chaos and an eye-watering recipe for purple curry- but the most rewarding aspect of the book is as a memoir of an Odd Couple friendship, made all the more remarkable by Masters’ lack of self-delusion; he becomes quite ready to examine the emptiness in his own life and to depict himself as just as nerdy, curmudgeonly and socially inappropriate as Stuart, except perhaps without the chutzpah. It’s this bravery and charm that gets Stuart out of life-threatening scrapes, and eventually gives him the agency he craves as an activist.
Tragically, it’s just as Stuart is achieving his furiously hard-won potential that his life is cut short in his early thirties, and Masters, the exhaustive researcher, is forced to conclude that some answers will never be found. Stuart: A Life Backwards is about how sometimes the past can’t be outrun, but that people can still achieve things far beyond what might ever be expected.
Alexander Masters’ early life, unlike Stuart’s, may have been fairly unremarkable but his backwards book is a tour de force and, in chronicling one difficult life, it becomes a genuine act of love.