It is one of life’s irony that the better the book you read is, the harder it is to put into a review exactly how much you enjoyed it. I usually take Booker Prize nominees with a pinch of salt, but Shuggie Bain is a worthy shortlisted nominee. The book is stunning and what is more it is Stuart’s debut, and I am amazed at his talent and craftsmanship.
Set in the 1980s in Glasgow, the novel spans over a decade in which we get to intimately know young Shuggie Bain and his life. We first meet Shuggie when he is five or six. In the beginning of the novel, he is surrounded by family – grandparents and siblings, parents and neighbours. His half-brother, half-sister, his father, and his grandparents weave in and out of the narrative in the right places and the right time, but the majority of the novel revolves around the relationship between Shuggie and his mother. That is not to say that the secondary characters are not important or do not reveal a lot about the era and Shuggie’s life – on the contrary, they all play a vital role in telling us his story. We quickly come to realise that Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is an alcoholic and throughout the spanning years we get to know her intimately – from her addiction and fake grandeur to the way she brings up her children and deals with the blows that life deals her. Being brought up in tough circumstances, in poverty and squalor, with an addicted parent, we see the struggles that Shuggie himself goes through. We are also offered the stories of his older siblings and their two different ways of finding freedom from their mother.
There are many layers to the story. We see the economic squalor that has hit Scotland during the Thatcher’s reign. We see the way poverty can twist people and limit their opportunities. We see addictions and petty grievances. It is not an easy story to read, because life was not easy at that point in time. However, there is so much more to it than this. There are small kindnesses, there is humor and there is hope within it all. Where there is humanity, there is hope, and we witness Agnes going to AA meetings, and eventually getting clean and sober. Yes, it does not last for more than a year, but it does show that there is always hope. It also shows how good a mother she can be when not drinking. We, as a society, tend to judge people a bit too quickly, especially when their circumstances are different from ours, and we rarely put ourselves in their shoes. It is easy to judge Agnes; she does make us cringe quite a lot throughout the book. However, addiction is an illness, and Stuart portrays this incredibly well. He also reminds us through Agnes’s relapse that we should never, ever, force people to have a drink when they don’t want to – an obvious, yes often ignored, advice.
Alongside the themes of mother/son relationship and addiction, there is a myriad of topics that Stuart discusses. From early in the book, it becomes obvious that Shuggie is somewhat different from the other children. We see him get verbally and physically abused because he is perceived as ‘the other’, and we witness how society, even young children, can quickly ostracize you if you are different from them. Stuart also explores abandonment and the hurt it brings often to both parties. Shuggie’s siblings both leave him alone with Agnes. It is hard to judge them; their need to escape this life is completely understandable. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that Shuggie is the one stuck with an alcoholic mother all by himself. It is this feeling of being stuck in a perpetual horror, living in constant fear that clashes with Shuggie’s love for his mother. We know that there isn’t much hope for Agnes after her relapse, but Shuggie’s quest to make her better is completely understandable, and it is hard not to root for him. Family ties are complex in the best of times but add a tough childhood and an addiction to the mix, it becomes a web that is impossible to untangle. Duty and love clash with the instinct for survival, the need for a better life, and we witness this struggle through Shuggie’s character. It is a struggle that comes to, if not a happy then at least a hopeful ending.
As a whole, I can only strongly recommend you Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It is not an easy story, but it is worth your time. For some of you it will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, for others it will be an eye-opener. Here is to hope and here is to Shuggie Bain.
Shuggie Bain is out now, published by Picador Books