Into Books Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Book: Shuggie Bain
Author: Douglas Stuart
Publisher: Picador, 2020

Douglas Stuart’s Booker prizewinning debut novel, Shuggie Bain, set in 1980s Thatcher-ravaged Glasgow and surrounds, is a tragic portrayal of growing up in government-imposed poverty that is capable of arousing both visceral anger and human warmth at the flip of a page. 

Shuggie, a child struggling to understand his sexuality and why people insist he’s ‘no right’, grows up in an atmosphere sodden with violence, misogyny, sectarianism and drink, yet he maintains an unfailing love for his alcoholic mother, Agnes.  The novel is set in a time when ‘men’s masculinity is being taken from them’ as one by one, jobs are lost throughout the city and the central belt. Poverty, alcohol and depression replace shipbuilding, foundries and mines; children swarm the streets like packs of pit dogs and women huddle in bare gardens to gossip and spy in the shadow of the slag heaps.

Working in New York’s fashion industry, Stuart has described himself as a visual artist and the imagery in Shuggie Bain, is testament to this: ‘The black slag hills stretched for miles like the waves of a petrified sea.’

There is a chill to this subtext of social commentary that runs much deeper than the ice with which Agnes’ female neighbours freeze her out; it exists in the cold mugs of Special Brew and vodka, in the aroma of damp bedrooms, in the desperation of emptied gas meters, in the hunger in Shuggie’s belly and in the menacing gazes of taxi drivers from rear-view mirrors.  Child protection and human rights issues haunted me for days after I finished this book, like remnants of the Chernobyl dust that once clouded our Scottish air.

This is not a story written in Scots like fellow Glaswegian Booker Prizewinner, Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994).  Instead it is written in English, with Scots words scattered throughout, like coins at a scramble from a wedding past.  Vocabulary such as – ‘stoater’, ‘boakin’ and ‘scunners’ add life to the text, perhaps even encouraging the First Minister herself to use words like ‘scunnered’ on national TV!  In places there is a tendency towards repetition and overwriting – including an inordinate amount of references to sucking on one’s ceramic dentures but despite certain editorial gaffs (‘doubt’ instead of ‘dout’) and a profusion of depressing adjectives, the language reminded me of the vocabulary of my parents’ generation and phrases like ‘in the name o the wee man’ and ‘gie it laldy’ made me smile.

This is a book as bleak as Long and McArthur’s No Mean City (1935) which set the bar for the city’s violent literary tradition and as I read the first few chapters there was a slight niggle that there might be a danger of revising this stereotypical view of the city and its people.  However, what sets Shuggie Bain apart is the pathos of the queer young protagonist.  His emotional and physical neglect, coupled with his intense loneliness, reminded me of Billy in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) and I felt a crippling empathy for this wee lad and his inward struggle:

He knew now that he couldn’t keep his promise.  He had lied to Agnes as she had lied to him about stopping the drink.  She would never be able to get sober, and he, sat in the cold with a lovely girl, knew he would never feel quite like a normal boy.

I began to despair of there being any love and compassion at all in this post-industrial, almost dystopian world, with landscapes reminiscent of French photographer, Raymond Depardon’s ‘graisailes’ of the 1980s.  In the end, Shuggie and his mum are the only ones who convey these emotions, despite Agnes’ illness and dysfunctional parenting.

Ultimately, this a beautifully written, poignant story about family, abuse and individual resilience; the love that binds a mother and son, no matter their faults, no matter what ‘normal’ means. Stuart is fully deserving of the Booker Prize but I wept for Shuggie and Agnes when the announcement was made.

L M Mulholland
@LorettaMulholl1

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