Review: Shuggie Bain

This novel is another leftover from the summer reading, but I was very glad to have it, in spite of it looking like it had spent many days with a dozen readers, on the beach and in the rain. It won the Booker Prize last year, one occasion, at least, where I felt that what the Booker should be awarding and what the winning novel is merged into consistency. No scholarly text about a different world, with deep philosophical drifts. Rather, a gritty story about real people in a grim place who can’t help themselves. A book which gives us a memorable picture of humanity.

Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s first novel. A bit like a rookie baseball player hitting a home run in the major leagues in his first time at bat. Mr Stuart grew up in Glasgow, where the novel is set. So, it seems to me that he lived a life very much like that of Shuggie Bain. In any event, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, he moved to New York where he began a career in design. He wrote several short stories for the New Yorker, and his essay on gender, anxiety and class appeared in the Lit Hub. One feels sure we will hear much more from Douglas Stuart/

Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain doesn’t have a complex plot. Agnes, a single mother of three is a goodtime girl, who lives for drink, partying and chasing men, and yet we respond to her vulnerability, and maintain our hope that she will reform herself. Her youngest child is Shuggie, a bright, sensitive ten-year-old, who adores, tries to protect, and is blighted by his mother. We hope that he will focus on his school work, and cut his mother adrift, but that never happens. Instead, we watch as Agnes moves from place to place in Glasgow, and man to man, blaming her misfortune on others, and unable to escape the grip of alcohol, until it kills her.

The book is long – 430 pages – for its simplicity, but none of it seems redundant. Each episode and each scene is relevant to the characters and their dilemmas, and the reader senses impending doom, making it difficult to put the book down. Agnes and Shuggie are flesh and blood characters: their strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities are vibrant and inescapable. Even minor characters like Big Shug and Eugene are three dimensional. The Glaswegian accent and culture are faithfully reproduced. The settings are often painfully clear. Parts of 1960’s Glasgow were not really fit for human habitation. In fact, I could feel the involvement of the author in some of the descriptions of places like Pithead, where the language condemned the place.

I think that Shuggie Bain will remain one of those iconic books about a particular culture, time and place that will be remembered, read and reread well into the future.

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