Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Categories: Literary Fiction
First Publication Date: February 11th 2020
Synopsis: Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.
Shuggie Bain was a book I started to read in January and, after a few pages, decided to put down and pick it up when I felt a bit less depressed because this would be a long, bleak story. I picked it up again now in March/April and finished it in three days! It’s truly a heartbreaking, beautifully written story, but I do warn any potential readers that it’s not an easy book to read. It was, however, definitely worth it.
Despite the title of this book being Shuggie Bain, most of the book is centered on Agnes, his mother, and her struggle with addiction. She is an alcoholic and, in the beginning of the novel, has left her Catholic husband and is now in an unhappy marriage with Big Shug, the man she ran away with. Through the incredibly sensitive narrative of Douglas Stuart, we follow the story of this complicated woman, for whom we are always rooting but also exasperated and exhausted by. I don’t know how many times I wish Shuggie would run away. This devastating portrayal of alcoholism is a heavy read, and the relentless way in which the story drags you down reminded me a bit of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. The intensity, the bleakness and violence are hard to read, but they’re balanced out by the gorgeous writing and the tender emotion in the story. Douglas Stuart did a fantastic job of turning a difficult-to-root-for character into someone that the reader, much like Shuggie, can’t help but hope to see get better. This is an excellent example of a complicated, deeply flawed woman written very well, in a way that the reader still is engaged by Agnes, charmed by her even, while also being sad and angry at her.
This is a very depressing story, weighing the reader down by how repetitive it is to watch Agnes try to get rid of her addiction, fail, promise to do better, fail again, over and over. Shuggie Bain is a heavy read not only for its content (trigger warning for: child abuse, alcohol abuse, rape, physical violence, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, self-harm, suicide), but for the constant feeling of inevitability, of living through the same depressing events repeatedly. To say that I enjoyed this novel is misleading: I appreciated it, was immersed in it, allowed it to break my heart but also took some necessary breaks to distance myself emotionally from it. It’s a novel that I admired but will probably not revisit. This is not the kind of story I gravitate towards (although I read my fare share of bleak literary fiction), but I’m glad to have read it and made up my mind about a novel that has been so discussed!
It will not be easy to recommend this book to anyone I know in real life, but I think among readers who mainly enjoy literary works, this is a formidable novel that I highly recommend.