Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Winner of the Booker Prize 2020
Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020
The Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year 2020
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.
Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.
Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, a blistering debut by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.
As a book blogger, I tend to get lots of messages saying “have you read this or that book yet” but this year more than any I have received so many messages saying I need to read Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador). Finally, I got my hands on a copy and now I know why. Some books leave a lasting impression on you long after you have finished reading. But Shuggie Bain did something different. I don’t think the story of young Shuggie will ever leave me. It is heartbreaking and brutal but beautiful if that makes sense? Whether my review of the Booker Prize 2020 winner will do it justice I am not sure.
Set in Glasgow in 1981 when the city was struggling and hopes and dreams lay in ruins for many. This is not a story that is easy and there was a number of times that I had to put the book down, but you are drawn back to the story of young Shuggie Bain.
For Agnes Bain all she wanted was a nice home and a garden but now she is an alcoholic and her life is nothing like what she was dreaming about. Shug, her husband cheats on her, and Agnes gambles away her benefits. She has three children, Catherine has married and left to live in South Africa to get away from her mother, then there is Alexander who is eventually thrown out of the house which now leaves the Shuggie who has to cope with everything at home. If that is not enough, when the family move to a new place surrounded by black slag heaps and Shuggie attends a new school only to be bullied as he is different from the other boys then he goes home to care for his alcoholic and abused mother.
This is not an easy novel to read as it is hard as a punch in the stomach at times but then again it is meant to convey a story of addiction and poverty and also of abuse. About a teenage boy who is picked on by others of his own age but also the adults of the village who see him as different and not right. But at the same time it is a story of a relationship between a mother and her youngest son and how he cares for her despite at times the brutal way she would treat him. Then there is his father who did not understand him and wanted Shuggie just to be like the other boys.
As hard as it was to read at times, this is a very intimate look at a family but also about the poverty of Glasgow during at this time. Beautifully crafted by Douglas Stuart and a deserved winner of this year’s Booker Prize and will be talked about for many years to come. Shuggie Bain is not an easy read and many will find the themes difficult but it really is worth the time to get to know the characters.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was published by Picador on 6th August 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org