Set in the deprived Glasgow of the 1980s, Shuggie Bain is a deeply personal account of one woman’s struggle with alcoholism and the devastating effect the disease has on her relationships with her men, her parents and her children, particularly the youngest, Shuggie, who is also grappling with his own sexuality.
It’s hard to believe Shuggie Bain is a debut novel,
such is the rich complexity of the narrative and the compelling, voyeuristic depiction of desperate lives in desperate places and desperate times that Douglas Stuart creates. Far from wallowing in the self pity most of us would consider more than permissible given such dire living conditions, Stuart allows Agnes and Shuggie mere occasional bouts of the ‘poor-me’s in between a teeth-gritting determination to climb out of the pit into which Agnes’s addiction and the men in her life have driven them.
Typically, even the worst, most degrading, most difficult to read scenes in the book are lightened by sharp Glaswegian wit while pretty much all the dialogue, apart from Shuggie’s, is encased in Glaswegian dialect which must make for some stuttering comprehension amongst many readers.
Douglas Stuart’s masterful juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, and his ability to tell the story through the eyes of a child whose whole world revolves around his mother and his mission to save her, is enthralling. Through small scenes whose finely-woven details allow you to not only see but also feel the tension and hopelessness in the lives of women whose husbands are frequently absent; unemployed and defeated at best; and violent, arrogant bullies at worst. Yet through Shuggie, whose own life is as fraught with violence and fear as his mother’s but which he keeps hidden from her, there’s an underlying current of hope, an undying belief that one day, with Shuggie’s help, Agnes will get better.
Shuggie Bain is an emotional roller-coaster of a read where you frequently have to close your eyes to the scene in front of you as it’s just too scary to look at,
yet the ride is exhilarating and you never want it to end. It will leave you exhausted, emotionally wrung-out and yet, unbelievably, with a smile on your face brought on by a simple twirl that hints at a bright new day. Superb.