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Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (#BookReview)

September 2, 2021

How to write about a book that has made such a big splash that it has already been extensively reviewed. What more can one say? This is what I’m facing with Douglas Stuart’s debut and Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain.

I haven’t, in fact, read much about it, because I prefer to come to books fresh, but I have heard an interview with Stuart, and I can imagine what has been written about his book. I have also discussed it with my reading group. All I can do is just launch in, and write what I would normally write, but I fear it won’t add anything fresh to the discussion. It will, however, record, for me, my thoughts and feelings.

The story

For those of you who haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, it tells the story of its eponymous protagonist growing up in public housing in 1980s industrial Glasgow. This was the time of Thatcher, a time when mines, shipyards, railyards closed, resulting in significant unemployment and the usual fallout when men can’t work and women and children end up on welfare:

Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

This is important, but it is also just the backdrop for the personal story of Shuggie and his mother Agnes. There are other characters, but these two are the book’s core.

The story starts in 1992 with Shuggie, nearly 16, living on his own in a boarding house in Southside Glasgow. He is clearly pitied by the people around him, so the question for us is why is he there alone, how did he get there? We then go back to 1981, where we meet Shuggie’s family, thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, her second husband Shug, and Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek, who were born to Agnes’ first husband. It is not a happy situation. They are all living in a flat with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and Agnes feels a failure.

When Shug does take his family away, it’s a cruel action, and Agnes and her three children soon find themselves alone, living on welfare payments in the desolate Pithead – a housing scheme which had “the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen”. She knew Shug was “a selfish animal”, but she wasn’t expecting this. From here, their lives are a struggle, though Agnes – now drinking heavily – tries her darnedest to maintain appearances amongst women who reject her and her airs.

The characters

Agnes’ airs! Stuart has an impressive ability to create vivid, real characters. Even the villains of the piece – like Shug – are recognisable as people beyond the “type”, in his case a macho, violent, womaniser, they represent. This is no mean feat. However, it’s Agnes, Shuggie and, to a degree, Leek, who are our focus.

Agnes is a woman with aspirations. She’s resourceful, when sober, and wants more than the life she’s been dealt. But, she is unable to find a way out, largely because, for women of her time and place, it seems that a man is the answer. Her first husband Brendan tries to buy her happiness, but he’s boring. Then the flashy Shug comes along. For all his failings, and they abound, he too tries to buy her happiness, but tires of all her “wanting”.

Unfortunately, one of the things Agnes wants is “to take a good drink”. Her drinking, which was already evident when they lived at her “mammy’s”, becomes a serious problem at Pithead. Life, for her children, becomes insufferable. Catherine skedaddles into an early marriage as soon as she can, while the sensitive, artistic Leek withdraws into himself, leaving the young Shuggie to be the main watcher over his mother. And this is where this novel’s credentials as autofiction come into play, because the evocation of the child-addict parent relationship reads so authentically. We can’t help admiring Agnes’ gallus, while also despairing for her and her children.

So, it’s a heartbreaking story. Not only does Shuggie struggle with his addicted mother – loving her, caring for her in ways that a child should never have to – but he must cope with his own outsiderness that he doesn’t understand. From a very young age his way of talking, dressing and walking, not to mention his disinterest in typical boy things, are ridiculed. He’s called names, beaten up, ostracised, and he doesn’t know why. At 10 years old, aware he’s “no right”, he asks his mother, “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” If she knows, she doesn’t tell him, but a few years later, he realises that Leek, who had tried to teach him to toughen up, had known all along.

Leek is the support act, figuratively and literally, to Shuggie and his mother. He quietly provides support in the background, even after he eventually leaves home. He’s resentful of the impact on his own ambitions to become an artist, but he sticks around, taking labouring work, because he is needed. In many ways, he’s the hero of the novel, and my heart went out to him as much as to Shuggie. This, I think, says it all:

he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that should be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.

The writing

It also gives you a flavour of the book’s expressive writing. One of the first things you might notice is that Stuart loves a simile. The book is full of them, but they are so good, like

“The auld man’s face crumpled like a dropped towel.”

and

“The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell.”

and so many of Agnes, such this when Shug leaves her

“Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”.

The book is also well structured, opening in 1992, which immediately tells us that whatever happens Shuggie is going to survive, and ending back in 1992, this time on a note of hope, albeit a tentative one.

Stuart uses vernacular extensively, resulting in much unfamiliar-to-me vocabulary – boak, hauch, gallus, to name a few – but they are understandable from the context, and essential to setting the scene. The novel is not at all hard to read. Indeed it’s beautiful – and easier to understand than some spoken Scottish can be!

Moreover, for all its bleakness, the novel has a good smattering of humour. Here’s Shuggie defending his mother, drunk and over-dressed, marching into the hospital to see her dying father,

Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl.

“She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.” 

What it all means

The novel is, as I’ve said, autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that Stuart simply sat down and wrote his life. Shuggie Bain reads as a considered piece of fiction that has some things to tell – about dashed dreams, the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, poverty, addiction and outsiderness. It’s both political and personal about what happens to lives when the ground beneath is taken away. And yet, for all that, it’s also about love – child-to-mother, brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend – that survives in places you barely expect it to. No-one in my reading group was sorry we scheduled it.

Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain
London: Picador, 2020 (2021 eBook)
355pp.
ISBN: 9781529019308

21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2021 23:31

    So glad you enjoyed it. I also loved it for its balance of bleakness and humour and authenticity. It will most certainly be in my favourites for the year.

    • September 3, 2021 09:04

      Yes, it will be up there for me too I’m sure Kate. That balance was great as you say. I’ve read some wonderful non-Aussies this year so far.

  2. Meg permalink
    September 3, 2021 07:02

    Hi Sue, a great read. If you have enough room to add to your TBR pile, I suggest putting Docherty by William McIllvanney, on top. A similar read, and also a great read.

    • September 3, 2021 08:40

      Ha ha Meg. Room on my TBR? I guess theoretically there’s always room! I will keep an eye out for Docherty, though. I haven’t heard of it.

  3. September 3, 2021 07:09

    Your review made me reflect that writing totally fictional characters is impossible. There now !
    What I mean is that every character a ‘proper’ writer creates has to be based on a real person. Has to be.
    How could you conceivably INVENT a credible character ?

    • September 3, 2021 08:38

      Good logical question M-R. I think perhaps many authors would feel their characters were amalgams, and some could be inspired by other characters they’ve read who are based on real people? I’m thinking, an author, say, wants a mother in her book, so she thinks what sort of mother will this be? Then she might start thinking of characteristics and these may be inspired by people she knows but she may not even be able to identify them. They just come out of years of observation and reading. That’s probably inventing I think? You do make me think M-R!

      • September 3, 2021 16:46

        That all makes good sense. Pity it’s wasted on this ancient who couldn’t write fiction to save her life ..

        • September 3, 2021 17:24

          At least you can write great non-fiction!

        • September 3, 2021 17:27

          I only had the one tale in my head, ST: it was clamouring for me to tell it so that CS wouldn’t be completely forgotten. Well, for a while ..

        • September 3, 2021 17:28

          And it was a great tale. He would have been so proud.

        • September 3, 2021 17:35

          THANK YOU !!!! XO

        • September 3, 2021 20:28

          No need to thank me M-R, I loved your book!

  4. piningforthewest permalink
    September 3, 2021 08:06

    I’m really glad that you didn’t find it diffcult to read the dialect, so many English people seem to have complained about that. I have yet to get around to reading it, I rarely read the books of the moment at the time, but as you enjoyed it I’ll read it soon. I also agree with Meg about William McIllvanney and of course there’s Ian Rankin if you fancy an Edinburgh setting.

    • September 3, 2021 08:30

      That’s interesting Katrina . Maybe there’s a mental block for many English when it comes to the Scottish that gets in the way? I thought it had a music to it, though as I said listening to some Scottish accents on TV shows can be challenging, where on the page it was less so.

      I have read some other Scottish writers, but not Mclllvanney or Rankin.

      • September 3, 2021 14:41

        I agree about some of the accents on TV. We had no problem understanding anybody when we were in Edinburgh, and I have Scottish friends too but (what I believe to be) the Glaswegian accent defeats me. I started watching something on SBS the other night and I could not make sense of it. If it had had subtitles, I would probably have been able to ‘learn’ it, to match the unfamiliar sounds with words I know, but because it was in English of course there weren’t any!

        • September 3, 2021 16:19

          Yes, I have had Scottish friends and colleagues, and have had minimal problems communicating with them. I used to be perfectly OK with TV shows but as I get older, I’m starting to understand my parents’ challenges in their last years with various accents on television!

          I think you would find the accent in this book easy to read, as I did, but I can imagine hearing someone speak it in a movie or TV show would be a very different challenge.

  5. September 5, 2021 01:22

    Now I want to read this book and compare it to the Trainspotting series by Irvine Welsh. Though a cult hit, the original novel (Trainspotting) is sketched out somewhat roughly, but then when Welsh went back and wrote a prequel called Skagboys, he really had more practice as a writer behind him and crafted an amazing novel about this same time period. The women in Skagboys seem so inconsequential, mostly like possessions, and while that’s hard to read, I do think it reflects the reality of of a society in which men expect to have their father’s jobs, as you quote.

    • September 5, 2021 09:14

      I only saw the film. Do you recommend Skagboys?

      • September 6, 2021 01:04

        The script of Trainspotting wonderfully brings the novel together, which reads as fairly choppy and had tons of extra characters. I thought Skagboys was a great book.

  6. September 5, 2021 10:33

    I am trying to stay away from reviews on this book as I have it on the shelf and if I read too much about a book before I get to it I go off it and end up not reading it. It looks like something I will dive into hopefully.

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