Reading Through the Awards: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

December 17, 2020

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary worldDouglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, recent winner of the Booker Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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 glamorous 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.”

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart tells the story of a boy coping with his mother’s alcohol addiction from the time he’s a young boy to when he’s a young man. Though Shuggie Bain is the title character, Stuart also gives meaningful insight to the other characters being affected by the alcoholism, but without losing the readers to the devastation the disease causes.

The third person narration is well-managed by Stuart. While the overall lens focuses on Shuggie and his mother, Agnes, there are moments where the narrator allows the thoughts of minor characters to be known as well. Shuggie’s siblings and father are given portions of chapters where the lens follows them closely and the reader can get an understanding of what their everyday life is like, and how Agnes’ actions directly affect them. The all-knowing narrator gains readers’ trust through these moments of well-placed perspectives or thoughts from minor characters. They’re sprinkled throughout the novel and always give just the right impact or information to show the many ways, big and small, Agnes impacts those around her.

Most stories exploring trauma, addiction, and/or sexuality can become emotionally exhausting, but Stuart’s writing and storytelling keep the reader intent on Shuggie’s journey. Instead of relying on shock value, Stuart presents character struggles with heart wrenching truthfulness so the reader can connect all the dots of the dysfunctional Bain family and empathize with the characters and their actions. In the end, even when Agnes is gone, the trauma remains. Without her there to continue inflicting emotional pain though, Shuggie Bain holds the promise to cope with the ghost of her and grow into his true self.

Melanie Spicer

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a simple and beautifully told story of ugliness. Agnes Bain is beautiful, her accent is high-class, and her clothes are high-quality, but none of it obscures the truth: she’s destroying her life through her choices. She has her pride, despite her pathetic station in life and the alcoholism that’s rotting her family away, but pride alone is not enough. She longs for a life she doesn’t “know the edges of,” but she sets her own limits, wasting the weekly government allowance on lager and vodka, and failing, most days, to be the mother she wants to be. The novel is about futility, the seemingly inevitable cycles of poverty, abuse, and addiction.

Her son Shuggie yearns to be “normal,” instead of a “poof.” Brief glimpses of sunlight, like losing himself in a hip-swinging dance despite the neighbors’ ridicule, are inevitably coupled with the cloud of oppression. He is abused and chronically ridiculed: in the scene following his dance, a gym teacher tells a boy punching Shuggie to “Never. Hit. Girls.” Shuggie’s struggle is being queer in a conservative area divided by class and religion, made even more conservative by the pressures of poverty. People will cling to any dignity in hard times, even the dignity of traditions that are harmful, backward, or oppressive. Shuggie is forced to pull positive traits where he can from deeply flawed people, cobbling together a personality piece by piece. Every day for Shuggie is a lesson in coping with awfulness, and in the end, Shuggie Bain has no grand lesson, no plan to make things better. It simply portrays.

Taylor Seyfert

From the start, the reader is thrust into the intricate and troubling life of the novel’s title character, Shuggie Bain. The year is 1992, and the text effortlessly garners interest, describing the intimate details of Shuggie’s life: the miserable supermarket where he works, the grimy place where he lives, and the smells of the many men he is in close proximity with. The hardship, general dissatisfaction, and emotional starvation is a theme that follows both Shuggie and his mother, Agnes Bain. Even more stunning is the opposing sentiments offered by Shuggie’s father, Big Shug, who seems to enjoy his hardship and emotional starvation. He regularly harvests this pleasure through women from young to old, and there are many moments where the reader may question these characters’ motives, even long after their worst flaws and transgressions have been revealed.

Conversely, the most collected and transparent characters in the Bain family are Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek. They are from another marriage, and they have seen enough disparities and disappointment to plod along and keep mostly to themselves until they begin to fade away. The most unfortunate child is Shuggie. Being the youngest, he is instinctively bound to his mother’s hip. Agnes Bain takes advantage of this dependence and uses the boy to keep her company, often letting him skip school and sending him to collect their government-issued pittance. Even more disheartening are the many people the Bains cross paths with who either offer up scathing comments or say nothing at all regarding the miserable life they seem intent on leading—and some people even help propagate it.

These moments culminate in one of the main questions of the narrative: “Why can’t I be enough?” This phrase is offered in varying forms and said by different people, most often regarding Agnes Bain and her stagnation, which is reflected in her repeated lapses in judgment. However, this quintessential line can be applied to nearly anyone within the text. Why can’t they be enough? Why can’t they be satisfied with what they have? These are inquiries any person may ask, and sometimes, there are no right answers. By the end, the reader has experienced conflicting emotions, mutual unhappiness, and distrust just as much as Shuggie. And although Shuggie Bain is physically freed from his mother’s embrace, he still reflects and even relishes in her shadow. Thankfully, there is hope for his future as he hangs around with Leanne and her troubles and tries to move forward in a seemingly distinct way.

S. N. Valadez

There’s a moment early in Shuggie Bain when Agnes, Shuggie’s alcoholic mother, arranges her face before she goes out to face her family. She cycles through different smiles, from “small apologetic ones” to “light casual smiles, like she was just back from the shops.” This constant tension—between what she wants and what she has, between a lack of control and controlling what she can, between defining her own identity and denying the reality of her condition—defines what makes Shuggie Bain so unapologetically raw: It’s an earnest portrayal of the unforgiving rawness of life. Author Douglas Stuart’s characters are never given any breaks. We start the novel with Shuggie going through the motions of young adulthood, and flash back to see him coming of age in a period of stagnation. Not only is this period of 1980s Scotland rife with economic turmoil and addiction, but as his mother deteriorates into her alcoholism, Shuggie becomes the only one left to pick up the pieces.

From the ever-present grayness of Pithead, the run-down public housing scheme where we spent the brunt of the story, to Shuggie’s loneliness as he grapples with his burgeoning queer identity, the darkness of the novel is balanced by its sheer authenticity. Stuart has built a world that reads clear and true on the page, in part due to stylistic elements like the phonetic Glaswegian dialogue, but primarily thanks to characters that are flawed, and pained, and real.  Although Shuggie Bain has been described as an astonishing debut, the novel read more like a declaration. Toward the end, Shuggie is trying to track down his mother at a party after her failed stint at sobriety. He looks up her friend’s name in the phone book and finds Agnes’ annotation: “She was, by his mother’s own handwriting, an old backstabbing slitty eyed gossip and also the best friend I ever had.” None of the main characters are wholly good or bad; none of them are purely heroes or villains. They are people Stuart knows deeply, and by portraying their realities on the page, we experience a slice of life that left me wanting more by the end. In interviews, Stuart has said that he spent a decade working on the story, and this is true to the experience of reading it: It takes time to really know someone, and the glimpses we get into the humanity of these characters feel like Stuart is just revealing enough of what we need to understand their world. There are glimmers of hope throughout the novel that are quickly squelched by the realities of living. But at the end, we see a small sense of hope that Shuggie completely owns—and maybe, finally, that’s why it feels like it will last.

Rebecca Paredes

Curated by Brandon Williams



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