Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

This book was an absolute gem of a surprise and probably the book that makes me most thankful for unexpected book post!

I’d not heard of Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart until it dropped through my letterbox. As I always do with new books, I had a read of the blurb (which sounded amazing) then I had a flick through and a little read of various sentences and sections just to get a vibe (anyone else do this?). All this did was make me super hyped to read the book and despite it not being published for a few months at the time it arrived, I pushed all other books aside and cracked on!

Man am I glad I did!

Glasgow, 1981 and against the backdrop of a Thatcher led government, Agnes Bain has big dreams for herself and her little family. Unfortunately, circumstances and finances conspire against her and she must make do with putting on a perfectly made up brave face and act the life she wants rather than actually living it.

When she is abandoned by her cheating husband ‘Big Shug’ on a housing ‘scheme’ in a near defunct mining town, Agnes relies more and more on the drink to get her through. It’s not long before her oldest child Catherine makes her escape from the family leaving brothers Leek and little Shuggie behind.

Shuggie is considered a strange boy by the local kids on the scheme and is often told by the adults around him to ‘act normal like the other boys’. He is fastidious like his mother, he has a doll, he enjoys dancing and he is very well spoken and polite. He absolutely adores his mother, she is the centre of his little world and he will do anything to see her happy.

As Agnes relies more and more on the drink and spends time with various different men, Shuggie is left to pick up the pieces when Agnes reaches blackout point. Despite vowing a number of times that she will give up drinking, Agnes is never very successful for long and the evil drink clutches hold of her time and time again.

Shuggie is neglected, not only by his struggling mother but by his two older siblings who can no longer put up with the life they’ve been dealt and flee the scheme, leaving Shuggie with the heavy weight of the responsibility for caring for his mother. His adoration is unerring and he is such a resilient little boy, he really breaks my heart!

Even though Agnes quite clearly neglects Shuggie I couldn’t help but feel empathy for her mental health and addiction struggles. Her desperate desire for a perfect life and to portray to those around her how ‘put together’ and in control she is when quite clearly she is failing. When the narrative sat with Shuggie, I felt such pain for him and wanted to shake Agnes to open her eyes to what she was doing to him and her family. However, when the narrative switched to Agnes’s point of view I felt I could understand her thoughts and actions and I felt like I was firmly in her head, experiencing her issues.

Although this is a dark and tragic story there are glimmers of hope. Shuggie deals with too much in his young life, things that no child should ever endure and some events he would not have experienced if maybe he had a mother who opened her eyes to what was happening around her instead of blocking life out with alcohol.

The relationship between Agnes and Shuggie albeit unbalanced in terms of parent/child responsibility is so beautiful at times. There are occasions where they bond over singing and dancing and playing ‘jewellery shops’ together. There is so much love between them. Love that Shuggie desperately needs and craves.

Agnes clipped through the scheme with the message bag by her side. She glides faster now, and Shuggie struggled to keep up as she flew down the hill. When she got home she went into the kitchen without taking off her coat. Shuggie sat in the living room and let her gather herself. He waited for the hiss and splash of the cans and then the sound of the drink being hidden. He waited until he heard the tap running at the big metal sink.

‘You feeling better?’ He asked from the doorway. She turned from the tea mug. The nervousness from her face was gone, but the worry was still there. ‘Much better, thanks. You were a good wee helper the day.’

He went and wrapped himself around her waist. ‘I’d do anything for you.’

He has such a hard time fitting in, with his sexuality and the way he holds himself, his interests and his general demeanour but he’s a little fighter.

This book is by no means an easy read but it is such an important one. There are so many themes running through it. It deals with violence, hopelessness, addiction, poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, unemployment and other grim subjects. However you cannot look away from this book.

There are also moments of pure humour and vibrancy! There’s a particularly vivid scene at the start involving a card game, a catalogue night and some new bras. Pure genius! Some of the peripheral characters are fabulous! So full of grit and life and grim determination. Agnes herself is a feisty one at times and I couldn’t not include this quote from her that had me chucking and thinking ‘gwaaarn Agnes!’

Agnes closed her coat against her neck and smiled goodbye. ‘Oh, and I fucked your man. It was lousy.’ She sniffed distastefully at the memory of it. ‘He had a line of skidmarks on his underwear that was a pure embarrassment’.

It has been a couple of months since I read it but revisiting this review now has brought back so many emotions. I feel like I need to go back and re-read it very soon but I’m not sure my heart can cope!

This is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel and has now been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am about this! I will be championing this book SO HARD! I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already.

Also, just before I leave you, if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t read the acknowledgements in a book, please make an exception for this one.

I cannot thank Camilla Elworthy, Picador and of course Douglas Stuart for bringing Shuggie into my life. I’ll never ever forget him.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat. Xx

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