By Douglas Stuart
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It is 1981.
Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive.
Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth).
But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town.
As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves.
It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety.
The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place. Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Edouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, a blistering debut by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.Tweet
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Shuggie Bain is an emotional and heart-wrenching novel; the tale of a boy's relationship with his alcoholic mother in poverty-stricken 1980s Glasgow. For those who have lived with a connection to addiction, sexual abuse or domestic violence, this book may certainly be triggering. For those who have not faced hardship similar to the characters in the book, it is perhaps a wake up call that life this hard, in such a harsh and hostile environment, can exist so close to home.
As someone who becomes very engaged with the emotional tone of fiction, I wouldn't usually choose this type of book as I find it affects my own mental health. I did have to pause at several points for a few days to process the emotions; I did wonder whether I would be able to carry on reading. However, the strength of the writing drew me back each time. It is immersive and cinematic in quality. The characters are vivid and believable (and, it transpires, are based on real people). The setting is nostalgic (many '80s throwback memories for me - Freemans catalogue! Hiding behind the sofa when the milkman comes for payment!) at the same time as being brutal. Just as the characters act in often terrible ways, yet are still lovable, the world the characters live in is harsh and inhumane yet somehow appears somehow beautiful at times.
I several times changed my attitude to the way Stuart writes about women. At points he draws them so believably, with honesty and affection - I especially loved the depiction of Agnes' mother and friends at the start of the novel, as well as the other women in Pithead - women surviving in the harshest conditions, their actions completely understandable. At other times I wondered whether the violence towards the women, and descriptions of their treatment, was prurient. Do we need to be presented with the image of Agnes looking like a ragdoll on the floor, or a pile of dirty laundry, (or similar) after being beaten and / or raped, again and again? Is there a reason for this? What is the message? I also read another reviewer saying that the description of women's physical appearance was always tinged with derogatory opinion (eg 'too much makeup or not enough'). I would like to read other reviews and talk to others (women especially) to gauge their response to this.
It is a book worth reading (and discussing with others) in my opinion.
I'm really glad our book group was selected to read Shuggie Bain - I may not have chosen it myself otherwise. I was compelled to keep reading and I particularly loved the way the speech was written in a Glaswegian accent, just brilliant, you could imagine exactly how each character spoke in your head. The book is (I believe) an achingly realistic portrait of alcoholism and the deprivation that existed in 1980s Glasgow. I felt a little embarrassed I didn't know more about Glasgow - my paternal grandfather was born and spent his early childhood there, but I think he was much more fortunate than the characters in this book. My ignorance was extensive, I had no idea there was such a Protestant and Catholic divide in Scotland (the one in Ireland gets far more press), nor did I realise the mine closures affected Glasgow (I always imagine the pits in northern England or Wales).
Douglas Stuart paints such a beautiful but tragic picture of Agnes and her struggle with the demon drink. The book is mainly about her rather than Shuggie, but he is ever present as a sort of guardian angel figure, watching over her. You feel really immersed and invested in Agnes as a character, I was really rooting for her. I was so mad with Eugene for leading her off the rails again. I was mad at Shug for driving her out to Pithead and abandoning her there. I was mad at her for not having more confidence in herself, for believing she needed a man to make her happy. I kept thinking if only she had turned around and gone back to her parents, if only she hadn't fallen off the wagon again, if only she'd had some counselling, but then there wouldn't be much of a story would there!? Oh Agnes.
It is so vividly observed I wonder how close the author was to events such as those portrayed in the book while growing up. Is he Shuggie? Was his mother Agnes? The dedication at the end suggests perhaps so, but it is vague enough to leave that question unresolved. In a way I hope it isn't based on his own life as, if so, I feel so desperately sorry for him. Either way, whether he writes from first-hand experience or no, it is a masterful telling of a very sad story. He has done a marvellous job of conjuring up the living conditions, relationships and struggles of the characters. For all its heart-break it is also heart-warming.
All in all I would definitely recommend this book and (having read the samples of the other shortlisted books) I think it would be a deserving winner of the Booker Prize 2020.
Set against the backdrop of an impoverished 1980s Glasgow, Shuggie Bain manages to be at once brutally honest, heartbreakingly tragic, eternally hopeful and beautifully written. Telling the story of a young boy who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, we fall in love with Shuggie as he tries to navigate poverty, isolation, and caring for his alcoholic mother Agnes. Stuart paints a portrait of a life that is so unjustly hard and bleak that I found myself hoping the book would finish soon so the suffering of Shuggie and Agnes could end, whilst at the same time savouring each perfect description or clever turn of phrase that made Shuggie’s world so distinctly realistic.
This is a book that stays with the reader once they are finished, and I feel connected to the characters in a way that only happens when you have read a great novel by a great writer. I find myself wishing I could check in on Shuggie to see how he is getting on now, and it is this familiarity that Stuart so effortlessly creates which is the book’s real strength. I’ve met many Shuggies and Agneses in my life, I’m sure we all have, so reading their story feels all the more poignant due to this familiarity and the unflinching honesty with which Stuart writes.
I feel no hesitation in recommending this book and I would like to thank Reading Groups for Everyone and Picador books for providing copies to our book group Back to the Book 2, giving me the opportunity to experience Shuggie’s world with him.
This book is being read and discussed by members of our book group Back To The Book 2.
The subject matter was a tough read(the story of an alcoholic mother and her family in Glasgow) but the writing and characters were so beautifully written and well rounded respectively that it was a joy to read.
The main character Shuggie had a lot of hardship but still remained upbeat and I was pleased to see that there was hope for him at the end of the story.
This story will stay with me for a long time.
I would recommend this to anyone as I was drawn into the world of the characters from the first page and the writing was a masterclass in how to write a book.
It deserves to be on the shortlist of the Booker Prize.
Shuggie Bain, the character and the novel, are two parts of a very special trio. The third is of course their author, Douglas Stuart. Even the UK edition of the novel’s cover is something memorable and adds visually to create the perfect package. Photographer, Jez Coulson’s ‘Easterhouse Crucifixion’ is striking and iconic in itself but in connection with the novel’s main character, it visually foreshadows the sacrifice of, if not the child, then certainly of childhood itself.
Although not an autobiographical tale, Stuart does draw on his own experiences of growing up in Glasgow and that’s why the writing, and the characters’ voices, are so clear and true. That’s applicable to both the 1980s setting, in the recreation of impoverished parts of Greater Glasgow, but also in the struggles of daily life for his characters, the roles men, women and children had, the way poverty traps people, the lengths they will go to in order to escape, and what happens when they can’t. There’s real depth to Stuart’s characters and you can’t help but love Shuggie who ultimately is just a wee boy who loves his mum.
Growing up as an adult child in a single (alcoholic) parent home, Shuggie doesn’t know any different. It’s not that families around him live wealthier lives, its not that they don’t also have burdens and troubles, but Shuggie’s life is hard in every sense. Even the way his older siblings deal with their mother’s drinking, and the strategies they find to cope, shows how siblings’ experiences of this life can be so different.
It’s a bleak novel, but so beautifully written and raw you cannot help but fall in love with Shuggie. There’s no blame cast on Agnes, his mother, either who is as much a victim as her boy. Her inability to cope with life without drinking is pitiful but again oh so real and tragic. What chance did she have? Ultimately though, this book is about love. It’s about the unfaltering true and faithful love only a child can have for a parent, and for a parent that’s deeply flawed. There's such hope in that.
After reading this novel shortly after its publication, I told anyone who’d listen how special it was. Then it was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. It’s a debut. It’s Scottish. Does it deserve to win above the other shortlisted titles? That’s not for me to decide, however, I’ve changed my original thinking that this was going to be one of my books of the year. It’s the book of my year.
My copy was kindly gifted by Reading Groups for Everyone, courtesy of Picador. I’m part of the Glasgow-based book group, Back to the Book 2.
This is a book that our book group Back2TheBook2 have been reading and sharing with each other and after reading it I can see why anyone would recommend it.
This book is a harsh and unflinching look at the poverty and despair that flooded 1980s Glasgow and, by focusing on the story of Agnes and her youngest child, Shuggie, the all too human and personal cost of this despair. The book charts Agnes' personal struggles with alcohol and it shows the true impact on this disease. I admire this book for its honesty and it makes the hope and dispair; the peaks and troughs more believable and you care more about everything that happens.
Shuggie is a character that I connected with from the start, and he is the kind of the character that you know will live in your head long after the book has finished.
The true magic in this book is in the writing and how Stuart is able to trap a thought or idea in words, like an insect trapped in amber. It is the power and beauty of the language that helps the reader deal with the events of story and also draws you into the lives of these characters
What can I say? This must be my book of the year. Absolutely gripping all the way through. The characters are all so real, so many shades of grey between the good and the bad. Yes, it’s heart-breaking at times but yet never makes you want to stop reading. The book is so nuanced and well-balanced that it never feels preachy, just gives an honest account of how some lives go, and how sometimes your surroundings can seem almost impossible to escape. An incredibly accomplished debut that everyone should read.