Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (2020)

Set in Thatcherite Britain in the early 80s this is the story of a young boy, raised by an alcoholic mother in the tenements and schemes of and around Glasgow. The story is, in part, autobiographical.

At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to a young man who is working on a deli counter in a supermarket. He lodges in a boarding house on his own and yet he still gets himself to school. He barely seems old enough to have this much responsibility. Roll back ten years and we learn the story of Shuggie and how he got to be where he is now – an eyeopening account of life overshadowed by alcohol, abuse and an absent father.

This is one of those tricky reviews to write because of what the book is about and certainly my perspective of it doesn’t tally up with a minority in this instance. I’ve not really been aware of, what I now know to be, ‘Misery Lit’. This is a genre that is largely autobiographical, recounting events from childhood to adulthood which invariably include abuse, alcoholism, drugs, abandonment and physical harm. ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt and ‘A Child Called It’ by David Pelzer are regarded as the forerunners in this particular genre. To make it clear I’ve not read these so will not be able to draw any comparisons with Shuggie Bain.

So, what did I think of it? Well, I did actually quite enjoy it. Stuart has a great style that makes this very readable. He captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in this harsh environment, no doubt informed by his own experiences. But what he manages, without making it mawkish, is the sense of hope it offers. These characters don’t give up even in the face of tremendous adversity. Their drive was the one thing that kept me turning the pages and what I found woven throughout was the sense of love and belief that one day things will be just a tiny bit different.

Agnes Bain pushed her toes into the carpet and leaned out as far as she could into the night air. The damp wind kissed her flushed neck and pushed down inside her dress. It felt like a stranger’s hand, a sign of living, a reminder of life. With a flick she watched her cigarette doubt fall, the glowing embers dancing sixteen floors down on to the dark forecourt. She wanted to show the city this claret velvet dress. She wanted to feel a little envy from strangers, to dance with men who held her proud and close. Mostly she wanted to take a good drink, to live a little.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, p 17

Even though Shuggie is at the heart of the story the spotlight is on women and their relationships with each other, their families and their children. Men are peripheral characters that come and go, seeking an easy way in or out, preying on the women, using the children. Some reviewers have stated that they’ve been turned off to the content because of the misogyny. I must admit I haven’t been able to work out if this is levelled at the author or if it’s purely to do with the treatment of the characters. Yes, of course, it’s horrific what the women (and, on occasion, the children) experience, and perhaps it’s the page turning regularity of it all which is overwhelming, but I would argue that this is a fictionalised autobiography covering about 10 years and any description of conflict or trauma is going to be amplified in its 400 pages or so. With the exception of one year (which is covered in about a chapter) what is left is the painful reality of unemployment, lack of education, prevailing attitudes motivating misogyny, the influence of the church and the cycle of deprivation (not helped by Government policy). Coincidently I’m reading another book which is a fictionalised biography. The first 100 pages, filled with the rather bucolic existence of a young couple before WWI, have been so dull it’s all I can do to keep reading. I’m not necessarily saying that a life of abuse should be presented to us as entertainment but I can appreciate why people might want to consume stories that have conflict driving the narrative forward.

However, and there is a big however! There is more to this book than abuse. What we learn is that despite it all these women have resilience and they don’t abandon hope, their homes or children. There is real joy at times and there is community. And it is written in such a way that it captures the emotion without being too heavy handed about it all. I rather enjoyed reading the Scots vernacular as it reminded me of being with my family in Scotland. And I’m of a mind to speak to my aunt who, as a child in the late 30s and early 40s, spent time in Glasgow with family, some 40 years before events in this book of course. I wonder what her recollection of living there is like? She does have a story of throwing a ball against a wall reciting all the swear words she knew at the time. It’ll be no surprise to hear that the wife of my preacher great-uncle was aghast by this.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much is because it has a very gothic atmosphere. It has all the elements, a broken landscape, a beautiful but ill young woman, a controlling man who keeps her captive and a monster in the form of abuse and alcoholism. The following quote has a Dickensian quality to it that summons spectres from novels past. It brings to mind an image of Miss Havisham ravaged by her bitterness and loneliness.

When they were hungry the three McAvennie girls floated up the street like ghostly brides. Their golden hair was matted and blown about their faces like a veil, and their long summer dresses, once a delicate blue, were washed out with age.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, p 170

In amongst the day to day struggles there are moments of normality. The children don’t go without and simple pleasures like the ice-cream van break up the monotony of the week. These moments are something to be savoured and enjoyed and sure enough the delayed pleasure in choosing the sweets is almost palpable. Shuggie though, hanging back, never quite comfortable with these people, has an aura about him that suggests he’s never going to remain part of this community forever.

Jinty McClinchy was an age ordering her rolling tobacco and peppermint chocolate. The weans after her had no money but a good stash of old ginger bottles that were each worth ten pence. They hoisted them up to the window with a clatter and then took their time spending their winnings. Penny chews and sherbet dabs, cheap chocolate mice and pink marshmallow mushrooms – all counted out one by one. At the back of the queue Shuggie stood with his hands on his hips; he silently corrected Gino’s arithmetic every time he deliberately short-changed someone.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, p 265

I hope I’ve done the book some justice in this brief review. I appreciate it’s not going to be for everyone as the subject matter is difficult. As the 2020 winner of the Booker Prize it must have been picked for good reason of course. As an aside I think Stuart had many rejections before it was picked up by an American publishing house. Interesting that they saw the potential in this.

And now back to my rather dull biography which I’m only persevering with because I feel I ought to for the subject’s sake.


13 thoughts on “Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (2020)

    1. Hi Robbie. Yes perhaps the themes are not suitable or appropriate if you’re dealing with other things but do hope circumstances change for you in the not too distant future. Thanks for reading the review and I look forward to hearing what you think about it if you get round to reading it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My husband has been very ill since late December and prior to that, my son was very sick for three months. I am reading books that are easy on the mind at the moment. I will get to this later in the year, once life normalises again.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m very sorry to hear that. That will take quite a toll. I completely understand why you might want to read things that are easier on the mind. I hope that you’re able to see your way through this difficult time and your son and husband are well on the way to a full recovery.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m pleased to hear you’re better. I need to check out your new posts in more detail. Yes I am still writing. In fact I’ve given one book to a friend so he can cast his eye over it. I’m hoping he’ll correct all my errors 😉 what about you? Have you made a lot of progress on your most recent book? Will you be posting more chapters?


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