When Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Man Booker Prize I’d not heard of it. That (on the other hand) is not unheard of because I rarely read books featured on international literary prize lists. It was made more memorable for me because I joked that Stuart reminded me very much of Australian (dislodged from NZ) author RWR McDonald and we joked about it on Twitter.
I wasn’t convinced I would enjoy Shuggie Bain. I’m not a fan of weighty sagas about poverty and the plight of the working man. Particularly in that bleak bread, dripping and beer after a day of toiling in the mines way.
And initially I struggled a little with Shuggie. Well, not Shuggie himself but the book. There was no doubt however, it’s brilliantly written. But Shuggie’s story grew on me and Stuart’s writing enchanted me.
by Douglas Stuart
Published by Picador
Genres: Literary Fiction, General Fiction
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.
Shuggie's mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie's guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life.
Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good--her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion's share of each week's benefits--all the family has to live on--on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs.
Agnes's older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is "no right," a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her--even her beloved Shuggie.
This story is bookended in 1992 with a sixteen year old Shuggie. In between we meet Shuggie (first) when he’s just five in 1981. I loved the seemingly resilient Shuggie we meet in 1992 and felt desperately sad for the younger Shuggie and the ‘lot’ he’s been dealt in life.
His mother Agnes infuriated me, though that’s intentional. I’m not sure Stuart wants us to feel sympathy for Agnes. We get some insight into her background – her… potential, if you like – but by the time we meet her she’s basically a self-centred narcissistic alcoholic.
She left her first husband for Shug and moved (with Shug) and her oldest two children into her parent’s place. Years later young Shuggie has come along and Agnes is no happier. Of course when Shug (Sr) promises her a better life (again) she burns bridges, leaving her devoted parents for a fresh start. And as expected the lives of the Agnes, Catherine, Leek and Shuggie go from bad to worse.
This unfolds from the points of view of Shuggie and Agnes. Though it’s often almost as if there’s an omnipresent narrator. It felt as if someone removed from it all is telling us the story rather than it being from someone’s point of view. I’d suggest it breaks the famous ‘show, don’t tell’ writing rule but Stuart’s storytelling is tragic, poignant and often pragmatic.
Shuggie is sure he can change his mother and it’s incredibly sad he believes he’s not ‘enough’ to make her want to change. It’s heartbreaking and heartaching. And yes I know the latter isn’t a word, but it should be. It perfectly describes Shuggie’s inability to give up on his mother.
My mammy had a good year once. It was lovely. p 429
His older brother Leek tries to warn him not to hold out hope.
Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better. When the time is right you have to leave. The only thing you can save is yourself. p 356
I found myself pondering the responsibility of siblings for each other. I suspect custody arrangements were a little loose at the time (and in the circumstances) and frustrated Shuggie’s much-older siblings didn’t try to remove him from the situation.
Scattered amongst the debris of the family’s lives is the occasional glimmer of wistfulness. Agnes continues to hold out hope her life will improve, but seems intent on having someone else do that for her. And Shuggie remains determined that – no matter what – he will be there for his mother. I wanted him to escape but could understand his dilemma.
Now when Shuggie watched her drink he could see she had lost the taste for a good time. She was drinking to forget herself, because she didn’t know how else to keep out the pain and the loneliness. pp 323-324
I liked young Shuggie and knew from the table of contents we only return to the ambitious resilient Shuggie (I’d imagined) I met in the book’s opening near the end. I confess to being disappointed with the book’s conclusion. I mean, I know I probably would have balked at a happily ever after or some sort of unrealistic rags-to-riches tale but I closed the book still feeling depressed rather than hopeful.
The book is very real in that sense. It’s a reminder that we don’t necessarily get what we wish for. That – as per Agnes – many of us live our lives in quiet desperation.
I’d most certainly recommend this read. It’s not uplifting as such. But it’s also not ENTIRELY depressing. We’re reminded that we can have hope, but it can lead to disappointment. Importantly we’re reminded to take joy in the small things. We find friends or make connections and get by as best we can.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was published by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.