Originally published: 6 August 2020
Author: Douglas Stuart
Published by: Picador
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 448 pages
Reading dates: 18-25 November 2021
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.
As the book begins, Shuggie is a teenager living alone in a bedsit in 1992, alone and struggling. The book then goes back in time to 1981 in the Sighthill region of Glasgow. where he lives with his mother Agnes, his father Shug, his grandparents and his older brother and sister. It soon becomes apparent that Agnes has a drinking problem and his taxi driving dad has an eye for the ladies and his brother and sister spend as little time at home as possible.
A new start comes for the family when Shug finds them a home of their own in the mining town of Pithead, but on moving in, Shug immediately leaves the family and Agnes is left alone with the children. Without the support of her parents and the support network she had in Sighthill, she descends further into alcoholism.
This was such a powerful and difficult read but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite being an alcoholic, Agnes does her best to keep up appearances, especially with the women of Pithead but she never fits in. The things she does in order to drink are desperate – she uses all her money from benefits to fund her drinking and Shuggie, who adores his mum despite her difficulties, from quite a young age becomes the parent to her – making sure she won’t choke on her own vomit and leaving her a glass of water out for when she wakes.
There are many shocking moments – some of which took my breath away. The realities of living with an alcoholic parent are laid bare in this book and I felt for poor Shuggie. He is different from the other children in the way he speaks and acts and he is picked upon throughout his childhood so there is no happy place for him. It becomes apparent to us the reader that he is gay, his family suspect it and his brother tries to encourage him to be “normal”.
This was our book club choice for November (the theme was “prize winners”) and it was a highly scored book from the whole group. Despite the grim topic, there is the odd moment of humour, often in the way Agnes spoke to the other Pithead ladies and although we know that Shuggie ends up alone in a bedsit from the beginning of the book, you can’t help but root for Agnes.
Thank you to Book Break UK and Picador for sending a copy of Shuggie Bain for review and I can only hang my head in shame about the length of time I took to read it.
About the author:
Douglas Stuart is a Scottish – American author.
His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, won the 2020 Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. It won the Book of The Year at the British Book Awards and The Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Shuggie Bain was also a finalist for the Rathbones Folio Prize, The Kirkus Prize, The Orwell Prize, The Pen Hemingway Award, The McKitterick Prize and was a finalist for The Center for Fiction First novel prize.
His next novel, Young Mungo, will be published in April 2022.
His short stories, Found Wanting, and The Englishman, were both published in The New Yorker magazine. His writing on Gender, Anxiety and Poverty can be found on Lit Hub.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he is a graduate of The Royal College of Art, and since 2000 he has lived and worked in New York City.