Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was first published in April 2021 by Picador and runs 448 pages.
Shuggie Bain is a powerful story about a young boy ‘Shuggie’, attempting to make sense of himself and his chaotic home life in a 1980s Glasgow still reeling from Margaret Thatcher’s policies, all while trying to care for his beloved alcoholic mother, Agnes.
Shuggie is the protagonist of the story. He adores his mum, who teaches him how to behave and speak properly (as opposed to the Glaswegian dialect spoken by others in their community) and that, combined with his effeminate nature, leads to him being bullied at school and by the other children in their homophobic neighbourhood. His mother is an alcoholic, and Shuggie is often left to care for her. Shuggie experiences a lot in his life, and nearly all of it isn’t good, but nonetheless, throughout the story, we see him grow and change from a shy, anxious kid into a stronger person who’s a little more accepting of himself.
Agnes clearly loves Shuggie, but her addiction to alcohol leads her to make some selfish decisions, affecting her relationships with everyone around her. Like Shuggie, Agnes has also been through a lot in her life, and she’s unhappy with how her life turned out. Although many of her decisions are questionable, you can’t help but empathise with her struggle with addiction while trying to parent her three children.
Hugh ‘Big Shug’ Bain
Big Shug is Shuggie’s philandering father and stepfather to Catherine and Leek. He left his previous wife and four children for Agnes and, eventually, relocates his family to a small mining town on the edge of Glasgow before leaving Agnes and the family for good. He’s not good to Agnes. His mental and physical abuse towards her drove her further into self-destruction.
Big Shug really grated on me, which is probably a good thing. I think he’s supposed to grate on you (if you read this book and thought he was marvellous, I would be concerned for you). He considers himself to be great, and his selfishness is endless. He is also unable to accept Shuggie as he is, which frustrated me because, though this story is set in the 1980s – it was a different time and whatnot – I believe a parent should love their child unconditionally – not on condition of their masculinity or lack thereof.
Catherine is Agnes’s eldest child, and she tries as best she can to help look after Shuggie. She and Leek share a close bond and help to support one another in the face of their mother’s alcoholism. Wanting a better life for herself, Catherine manages to get a job in the city, though she still tries to be there for Shuggie as much as she can. When she begins a relationship and then marries Donald Jr, Big Shug’s nephew, and moves away, Agnes, Leek and Shuggie feel abandoned. I can understand the feelings of abandonment felt by the others, yet, I empathised and sympathised greatly with Catherine. She wants more for herself than her mother thinks she should. She wants to experience a better existence than worrying about and taking care of Agnes all the time, and when she emigrated, I felt relieved for her.
Alexander ‘Leek’ Bain
Leek is the middle child and, with Catherine, is the product of Agnes’s first marriage. He’s a talented artist who hides from the world when his mother’s drinking gets too much to handle. When Agnes gets sober, he is relieved and even throws her a party to celebrate one year of sobriety. When his mother starts to drink again at the urging of her boyfriend, Eugene, Leek loses his temper and beats Eugene up.
I really felt for Leek. As a fellow middle child, I could relate to his sense of responsibility for Shuggie and his guilt for the times he was unable to help him. He’s such a well-written and rounded character.
In fact, Stuart does an excellent job of developing all of the characters, providing them with depth and nuance. We get to know them all intimately, allowing us to understand why they do what they do and why they are who they are.
Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, and he starts off with a bang. The book is emotionally charged, with Stuart pulling zero punches regarding the harsh realities of life below the breadline, using vivid descriptions to show the reader what Glasgow was like in the last decades of the 20th century.
I have no doubt that readers who may come from that part of the world will have their memories stirred. Those who do will also appreciate the use of the Glaswegian dialect and slang words. And don’t worry, if you are not from Scotland, as I’m not, the language used does not distract from the story. In fact, when taken into context with the rest of what you are reading, everything is easy to understand.
The book deals with themes of addiction and identity, giving a very realistic view of what it is like to live with and love family members who are addicts. Having alcoholism in my own family, I can tell you that it is no picnic watching the people you love being eaten away by that horrible disease.
I loved this book and have since learned that a TV series is currently in production based upon it with Douglas Stuart attached to write. I am looking forward to seeing how the vivid world of the book translates to the screen. Hopefully, it will be just as brilliant.
I am giving Shuggie Bain a full 10/10. I read it at bedtime and found myself straining to stay awake to read on.
Have you read Shuggie Bain or the author’s second book, Young Mungo? What did you think?
As always, thanks for stopping by to read my review.
Until next time,
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