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.
Length: 430 pages
Content warnings: alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide, depression, bullying, poverty, sexual abuse
I first heard of Shuggie Bain when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. I knew I wanted to read it based on the description. However, I decided to wait for the paperback to come out. As soon as it did this year, I bought it, and I’m so glad I did. I loved this book.
Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, we follow a boy named Shuggie. He’s roughly 16 years old and living in a bedsit when the book opens. Douglas Stuart then takes the reader back a few years into Shuggie’s childhood to follow the slow descent of his mother into alcoholism and a life on benefits. This book comes as close to reality as possible in depicting life in poverty in the UK in the 1980s.
Though Shuggie Bain isn’t overtly political, it does mention the then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the effect her policies had on communities like Shuggie’s in Glasgow. A lot of the men in the book are out of work and part of the book is set in a former mining town (Thatcher closed down most of the mines in the country). This isn’t political opinion, it’s the truth of what happened.
I felt hesitant about reading this book initially because it’s about a child. I don’t typically like books narrated by, or about, children. However, Shuggie Bain is as much as about his mother Agnes, as it is about him. The story is told in third-person point of view, and Shuggie is forced to be an adult really while he is still a child, so the book doesn’t have that child-like perspective or voice that I don’t like.
Agnes was a frustrating character in a lot of ways. She falls into the trap of drinking to numb her misery, which only causes more misery. And while it’s easy to see the fallacy of this as a reader, as an outside observer, we have to remember that this is the reality for a lot of people – because of drink or other addiction/bad behaviours. When you’re trapped in that cycle, you aren’t seeing the world rationally. You aren’t capable of rational decisions because the addiction is driving all your thoughts and actions.
Agnes’ behaviour does get repetitive, and though the story is about her, it’s real focus is Shuggie. The point of the narrative is the effect her behaviour is having on Shuggie, and that isn’t repetitive. We watch him grow up, grow into a carer, and struggle with his own issues too. We watch his evolving relationship with his mother as he gets older and she gets worse. The story is Shuggie, not Agnes.
The repetition of Agnes’ behaviour also reflects real life. It shows the real cycle alcoholics get trapped in, and it mimics the repetitive drudgery of poverty. Nothing changes for those stuck in the worst of poverty, there is very little hope for change. And it is frustrating.
Shuggie Bain also deals with LGBTQ+ themes. The reality for those who do not identity as straight and cisgendered in the 1980s was a lot different than it is now. Shuggie is endlessly bulled for being ‘not right’, not as a boy should be, not as the other boys are. This subtle theme runs throughout the novel, giving a sense of underlying uneasiness to the story.
Stuart’s writing is impeccable. It left me with a sense that, like some other writers I have reviewed, he chooses each word with care. He never gives too much information, too much description, or too little. I loved that he wrote the dialogue in Scots dialect. Whilst in a few instances I struggled to understand what the characters were saying, I followed most of it. It gave the characters a feeling of authenticity. I felt as if I were to go to Glasgow, I might find them wandering around the streets, as real as you and me.
This is an important book, as it depicts a section of society that isn’t often (if at all) seen in literature. I would love to find more books like this.
As a side note, I believe that Shuggle Bain is quite an autobiographical novel for Stuart.
Overall, I loved this book, and I can’t wait for the publication of Douglas Stuart’s next book, Young Mungo. I have it pre-ordered, and I’m hoping it’s just as good as Shugie Bain. Easily one of my favourite books of the year.