Winner of the 2020 Booker Prize and a book club favourite, 'Shuggie Bain' is a brutally honest and brilliantly observed story about a working-class family living in 1980’s Glasgow. Set against a backdrop of high unemployment and poverty as the impact of Thatcher’s privatisation of industry takes effect - this is an amazing read.
BY DOUGLAS STUART
Please don’t let the harrowing subject matter deter you from reading this richly deserved Booker Prize Winner 2020 and also one of our Den's Dozen. 'Shuggie Bain' by Douglas Stuart is a brutally honest and brilliantly observed story about a working-class family living in 1980’s Glasgow, set against a backdrop of high unemployment and poverty as the impact of Thatcher’s privatisation of industry takes effect. At the centre of the story is Agnes Bain, a beautiful, proud woman and young Shuggie, her youngest child who “doesn’t fit in.” Together they find themselves at odds with the harsh world they inhabit.
Agnes Bain is from a loving Catholic family. She is beautiful and impeccably dressed so has no problem in attracting men. Although her first husband adores her, she leaves him with her young family in tow and hooks up with Shug (senior), a charismatic good-looking Protestant taxi driver who is young Shuggie’s father. At first they live with Agnes’s parents in a council tower block, but Agnes likes her drink, and as Shug starts seeing other women so her drinking becomes worse. One day he moves the family to a new home in a decimated mining area. Agnes finds herself trapped in this house where she can’t move on. As her addiction becomes all consuming, so her three children find themselves imprisoned too.
This may be a challenging read, but the Den were blown away by its beauty. This is a love story too. Agnes’s children love her unconditionally, particularly young Shuggie. Shuggie is effeminate and likes “girly” things which puts him at odds with their neighbours living in this hard-hitting estate. Stuart alternates the narrator which highlights the individual struggles within the family, including Agnes’s visceral pain when she knows her actions are destructive but is unable to put on the breaks. The despair and hopes of the rollercoaster ride of living with an alcoholic are laid bare. Inevitably her children start to move on leaving young Shuggie, whose unconditional love for his mother is absolute.
You sense some of this story must be autobiographical due to the depth of understanding of living with alcoholism. It serves as a reminder to the severity of the repercussions this disease has on the whole family. All this may sound like a dark read, but the writing is fresh and intimate, even allowing for optimism - Agnes has hope that her children will go out into the world and do well. To get you in the mood, here are a couple of the Den’s favourite imageries and as you will see, there is humour too!
- “In the dim light his grandfather looked the colour of condensed milk”.
- “Agnes clenched her jaw in anger so tightly that the porcelain dentures shrieked like two supper plates rubbing together.”.