Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Grove Press, 2020)

Oof. This book. Let me start by saying that it is worthy of the high praise and the awards it has received. But it’s really hard to read. I started slow and came close to giving up after one particularly brutal chapter but pushed through and am glad I did. Shuggie Bain does not shy away from the worst that humanity has to offer but Stuart tells this story in a sympathetic and honest manner. It never feels like we’re being shown the horrors of what a person can do or experience simply in order to shock us, but instead that the story being told is painful because of how true and familiar it is for so many people.

The title belongs to Shuggie but the story truly belongs to the character of his mother, Agnes. Shuggie is her youngest son, her child with her second husband, Shug Bain or Big Shug. Having left her first husband, Agnes and Shug move in, along with her two children, with her parents. This is where we meet them but Shug soon moves Agnes and her three children, Shuggie being only about 5-years-old, out of central Glasgow and into a tenement known as Pithead. Here he effectively abandons her.

Agnes is a vivacious and dynamic woman. She is always done up, hair and make-up perfect. She loves excitement and glamour and romance, always looking for the next best thing, always wanting something better than what she has. She is an alcoholic, spending many of her days in a stupor of vodka and lager, driven to desperation in search of her next drink and spending the measly benefits she receives from the government on alcohol instead of food. She loves her children but is consumed by her desire to drink. Her children from her first marriage, Catherine and Leek, are older and increasingly it is Shuggie who is left alone with Agnes.

Shuggie is a quiet child, fastidious, different from the other children around him. It isn’t Agnes’ drinking that marks him as this is a sadly common story among the working class of Glasgow. The story has an old-fashioned tone to it and I kept forgetting that it was set in the 1980s. This is Thatcher’s Scotland, full of unemployed men. Men who did physical labour that has suddenly vanished. We see entire communities full of men and women without work, steadily drinking away the pittance they are given in return. This is Shuggie’s whole life; he knows no other. Agnes is the centre of this for him and he consistently believes that she will get better, that she will overcome her alcoholism. There are glimpses of who she can be without the booze and Stuart skilfully weaves these in throughout the story so that even as Agnes’ choices made me angry, I couldn’t help but be heartbroken that she could never become who she was meant to be. Everything around Agnes seems to serve to keep her in the gutter and only Shuggie seems to believe she is capable of something greater.

It’s a heartbreaking and awful portrait of alcoholism. There is no glamour here. And it’s all the more heartbreaking when held up next to the picture of glamour that Agnes wants to portray. Shuggie doesn’t fit in with his peers because, in many ways, Agnes has raised him to stand out. He dresses neatly even as a young boy, he pronounces his words carefully, he cares about his surroundings and appearances. All of these are things that he has learned from Agnes.

She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Stuart also excels at bringing the city of Glasgow to life. Although I’ve never visited Scotland, he made the city feel real and the descriptive language throughout made me feel the rain and cold and damp. The characters that surround Agnes and Shuggie add to their surroundings, from Shuggie’s older siblings, to their neighbours in Pithead. There’s a fair smattering of Scottish slang and dialogue but it never felt hard to understand or follow.

This is a truly excellent debut. Hard to read but in the end worthwhile.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart”

  1. I had thought of this as too dark for me, and it definitely sounds very difficult to read, but I love Glasgow and miss it (I used to be a pretty regular visitor Before the Event as one of my best friends is married to a Glaswegian). I’m somewhat tempted to read this just because of what you say about it really evoking the city.

    1. I felt that the worst of it was early in the book in terms of descriptions. It made a big difference for me that the violence and terrible things never felt gratuitous or like they were simply being done for shock value. That’s a dealbreaker for me in books but Stuart’s approach felt very honest.

      I’ve yet to visit Glasgow so I can’t speak to the accuracy but if felt very real and vivid.

  2. I know this book is beloved and award winning, but when I read reviews of it, I wonder how it is different from other novels about addiction, for instance, The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle, which is set in Ireland in the same time period. Perhaps just the writing is different, or the more frequent perspective from the child is different.

    1. I haven’t read Doyle so I’m not sure how it compares. It’s getting comparisons to Frank McCourt too and I think it’s bleaker than his writing (though it’s been years since I read Angela’s Ashes). I do think the character of Shuggie himself is something different though Agnes’ perspective is the strongest.

  3. The title sounds familiar but I’m surprised I haven’t seen more about this book? It looks like a good one, but obviously as you point out, very difficult to read. Ugh, reading about kids being abused and neglected is the absolute worst. When its adults I can cope, but kids are just…so challenging to read about. Still, its important because as you say, this is the reality for so many people, so I can’t just stick my head in the sand, as much as I’d like to!

    1. If it helps, most of the abuse is surrounding Agnes. Shuggie is more neglected than he is abused…I feel like that isn’t making a good case for reading this book but I hate reading about child abuse too and that wasn’t the aspect that bothered me the most here.

  4. Great review! I fully agree on finding this a painful read, especially in the sense of universality it offers, but I found the prose so easy to follow and Shuggie’s narration so compelling that the pages sort of flew by for me, softening the tragedy of it all just enough to keep it palatable. I can imagine reading it slowly would be harder. It is certainly a heartbreaking book, though for me also excellent and worthwhile, an impressive debut. I’m glad to see you felt that way in the end even after a rocky start. I was pleased to see this one win the Booker.

    1. Once I got going, the book was much easier to read. It almost felt like Stuart was trying to shock his readers right away so you knew what you were getting in to. I think the Booker win was well-deserved!

  5. From the quote, I’d be surprised if William McIlvanney wasn’t one of his influences – it’s very reminiscent of his descriptive style.

    1. I do, very highly! He’s a great writer and gives a much more authentic picture of Glaswegian society than most. His style has been hugely influential on the last couple of generations of Scots, but few of them can match his intelligence or beautiful wordsmithing… 😀 Laidlaw is the best known of his books – crime but with a definite lit-fic feel, or for pure lit-fic, I’d recommend Docherty, which I described as a Scottish Grapes of Wrath.

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