Shuggie Bain … a review

Scottish-American Douglas Stuart’s debut novel won the Booker Prize last year. In Scotland, it was all over the news. The Glasgow boy had brought it home. I received the beautiful Picador hardback copy in my Christmas pile last year, and have just finished reading it. The novel is set in 1980s Glasgow, and though the protagonist is the ‘no’ quite right‘ young Shuggie, the heroine really is his mother, Agnes Bain.

Living and existing at the intersection of poverty, violence, and alcoholism, there is no hope for Agnes from the very beginning. It is this finality that looms like a dark shadow throughout the book. Agnes moves from man to man, with her three children in tow behind her. She cannot keep a steady relationship, has no regular income, and goes from the squalor of council flats to her parents and back to flats again. No matter what she will do and what choices she will make, her addiction will not go away and leave her in peace.

There is something to be said about book like these, where the suffering seems interminable and unending. Agnes has no agency, and little Shuggie, is left to pick up the pieces as his siblings leave. I have been volunteering with a UK charity called Our Time,’ which provides support to children acting as carers for parents who live with mental health issues. And through their work, I have realised that there are 3 million children like Shuggie, who live in a cycle of hopelessness and pressure. This is poignant when he says, ‘It was clear now: nobody would get to be made brand new.’

Stuart’s prose is as you’d expect from an international prize winner, it is unapologetic, deliberate and authentic. He states the situation as is, he depicts the violence and addiction as is. And although it makes for really difficult reading, it holds a mirror up to society to reflect on the lives of the ‘have-nots.’ My close friend M worked all her life in social care in Glasgow council and some of the things she’s witnessed are not for the faint of stomach. There is nothing poetic about this rawness. And if you are moved, perhaps you’ll consider donating to ‘Our Time. They are a wonderful team who do great work.

As for the book, I do recommend it. Read it at your own peril in this already trying times. And remember to pause where you need to come up for air.

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