Shuggie Bain, the Booker prize-winning debut novel by Scottish-American writer, Douglas Stuart, was described to me by a fellow reader as relentlessly miserable, which pretty much banished any hope I had that it would be the perfect post-Christmas, lockdown read. But I read it anyway and I’m very glad I did!
Yes, the misery is unrelenting. Yes, the dark, tragic, desperate depiction of alcohol and substance abuse, poverty, bullying, unemployment, violence and hopelessness does not make for a light read, especially when you add in the grey skies of 1980’s sectarian Glasgow, where the novel is set and where rain is the “natural state”.
Yet, despite all that, there is a warmth and accessibility to the writing that just glides you through. The main characters are drawn in such a way that brings them to life and makes you want to put your arms around them and help them (with some notable exceptions!). The fact that the book is inspired by the author’s childhood serves to make the characters more real and quells any notion that ‘this wouldn’t happen in real life’.
There is humour, too. That raw, gritty, typically Scottish humour. The kind people use in a situation where if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry; or worse.
It opens with the eponymous Shuggie, (aka Hugh), trying to scratch out a life for himself, on his own, as a 16- or 17-year-old. He’s working for a “parsimonious bastard”, at the Deli counter in Kilfeather’s shop, his hopes of becoming a hair-dresser having been dashed; much like all of his hopes. The wretched circumstances of his life are revealed as the book goes back in time, to the early 1980s, and becomes as much, if not more, about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes.
Agnes is simultaneously beautiful, desperate, resilient, hopeful, hopeless, determined and proud. A slave to drink and drugs; a crippling desire to make things look good on the outside and an ever-unfulfilled hope that things will get better – with the next man, the next home or the next drink.
“Every day with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high… When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise”.
Agnes hangs most of her hopes on Shuggie’s father, Shug, her second husband; a violent thug of a man who drives a taxi for a living around the dark, bleak streets of Glasgow and fancies himself as charming. In reality, he is an insecure, abusive brute who, unsurprisingly, fails dismally to live up to Agnes’ expectations and, inevitably, abandons her and his son. Undeterred, Agnes embarks upon another relationship, moves house again and hope springs eternal – but not for long.
Shuggie spends his time vacillating between the hope that the mother he adores unconditionally will turn her life around and look after all of them; and the reality that, even though he’s just a child, he is the one doing the looking after. He takes on responsibilities heartbreakingly beyond his young years while, at the same time, grappling with the knowledge that he is different from, and doesn’t fit in with, the other lads on the street. He learns to manage ruthless bullying and casual, unyielding homophobic taunts. His older brother offers well-intentioned ‘help’, in this regard, by trying to teach him to ‘walk like a man’.
Shuggie’s siblings, Leek (Alexander) and Catherine (children of Agnes’ first husband, Brendan, the Catholic), seem to have gone into self-preservation mode at an early age. Leek is a talented artist who holds on to a letter of acceptance from an Art College he knows he will never attend, as a private trophy. Missing out on opportunities to better themselves, they bide their time seeking ways to escape their lives, one way or another.
The story merges the most disturbing of circumstances; alcohol dependency, searing loss, abusive relationships, hunger and degradation in a Thatcherite era that crushed the coal industry and brutalised the working classes. But, despite all of that, the abundance of indestructible, logic-defying love and hope “for a better tomorrow” that constantly strives to rise above the despair and disappointment, will sustain you through this brilliant, beautifully-written and utterly engaging book.
Whether you love this book as much as I did or not, I’m sure you won’t forget Shuggie Bain.
(c) Angela Connaughton
Order your copy online here.
And don’t forget, the author, Douglas Stuart, will be in conversation with Elaine Feeney as part of the EBCF September schedule in glór.