By Douglas Stuart
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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I wanted to leave it at that for this review but that isn’t very professional so here we go…
No, this isn’t Angela’s Ashes, nor Paddy Clarke, nor Thomas Penman, all of which are written in the first person and all of which I love, (especially The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman). Yes, it is a tale of a tough, brutal childhood but is more contemporary than those mentioned and is written in the third person. Usually this would make everything feel a little distanced but not the way Stuart Douglas writes; he drew me in from the first page, taking me deeper with each chapter, with an intimacy seldom achieved in writing.
There were moments I wanted to abandon the book as I felt mostly anger at the majority of people in Shuggie’s life. Their aggression, intolerance, bigotry, ignorance made it impossible for me to sympathise with them and I did not want them in my head. But I did care about Shuggie; he deserved so much better.
Shuggie kept me reading and though heart-breaking at times, this book is moving and uplifting. Stuart is a skilled writer to bring these people off the page, to make me angry at some and feel pity for others.
There is beautiful prose, there is hideous description. Stuart’s style is very easy to read but it’s never “lite”. And of course, set in Glasgow, there absolutely has to be accents and while some authors do this so badly, so unintelligibly, Stuart’s dialogue is superb. To put the spoken word on paper is no easy thing and to put the dialect on paper and not staunch the flow is genius… and this is his debut novel!
As I write, Shuggie Bain has been shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2020. I have not read the other five yet so I do not know if it deserves to win, but I do know it belongs on the shortlist.
An absolutely brilliant book. As much a social history of Glasgow in the 1980's as anything it also manages to tell the very personal story of an alcoholic mother struggling to survive and of her youngest son struggling to find out who he is while also coping with his mother and their circumstances. It's a tragic story, not least because it reflects the life of so many, but it never once gets maudlin or sentimental; it's simply told the way it is. Superbly written, highly recommended.
Compelling to the extent I had a physical reaction to reading this book. Half repelled and half drawn to reading it. The second half won.
Stuart creates characters you're entwined with from very early on in the book. I was willing Catherine to escape, Leek to make his way to art school and Agnes to stay sober. Her depiction as a stand out woman despite her obvious flaws (pride,narcissism, selfishness and vanity to mention a few) was beautiful and she seemed to maintain her fight until the very last stages of her alcoholism. She clearly loves her children although she rarely prioritised their needs over hers which her alcoholism was partly to blame for but also her inherent selfishness. I loved the sibling relationships too; Catherine and Leek in their getaway hideout comforting each other and their shared tension about the state they'd find their mother in, just how often they had to tread on egg shells around her. It was heartbreaking to watch them in turn recognising they had to escape to their family for their own preservation, especially when Shuggie finally acknowledged she couldn't be helped.
There's so much more to say about a book that gripped our group but enough to say that is a worthy Booker winner. A desolate story with flecks of beauty throughout and one that will stay with me as well as one I'd recommend.
Our Preschool Parents' book club read this as part of shadowing the Booker Prize shortlist for 2020
As a summary
Our 'Three Word Review - Marks out of /5 are as follows:
Heartbreaking, Unyielding, Survival - 4/5
Bleak, Moving, Believable - 5 /5
Raw, Complex, Evocative - 2.5/5 (* so realistic it was upsetting and touched too much - book deserved more than this but was difficult to read)
Protecting, Loving, Suffering - 5/5
Heartbreaking, realistic, sad - 3.7/5
Profound, Compassion, Understanding 4.5/5
Heartbreaking, Loving, Survival - 5/5
Vivid, Witty, Heartbreaking - 5/5
Overall this book would be a worthy winner of The Booker Prize 2020
Following the lives Shuggie through the story of his childhood living with his mother, Agnes Bain and her children, You watch Shuggie grow up, witnessing the changes in his family linked to his mother actions connected to her addiction growing up in '80's Glasgow. The writing is sublime, stark and visceral: you feel Agnes's Pain and her desire to escape and they way she tries to better her life and her children's, whilst wanting things for herself. You feel Shuggie struggle with loving her and wanting to protect & help her. The writing is moving to the point of tears, it is heartbreaking and you want to wrap Shuggie up and take him away to a better place and at the same time you also want to do this with Agnes.
Themes of poverty and wanting to escape feel very real at the moment during these uncertain times we are living in (Oct 2020, mid COVID, second lockdown announced) With Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart creates believable and vulnerable characters that are raw and vivid, allowing you to experience the feelings and personalities of Shuggie, Agnes, Leek and the others like a punch in the face. This is an amazing book and as a debut author we look forward to reading more from Douglas Stuart. Outstanding.
So pleased our book club had this to read. I loved it! It was quite hard hitting but so true of the lives some people lived, and still do sadly. The book was very well written and I loved the Scottish turn of phrase. I read it and listened to it too which worked so well. I come from a mining area of West Yorkshire so the book reminded me of my roots as well as similar great stories such as Kes and Billy Elliot. You deserve to win Douglas!
I’m finding it really difficult to write a review of this book, it is a book I would not have chosen to read, but it was selected for our book club, and I’m very glad it was...I think!
I was gripped from the beginning, I loved the way it was written in the Glaswegian dialect - I felt it really helped to bring the characters alive for me. I was captivated by the descriptions of the relationships, the love Shuggie felt for his mother throughout the book was heart wrenching and beautiful at the same time. The book was utterly compelling reading, I am an evening reader, and I found there were nights where I couldn’t stop reading, I needed to keep going, to keep soaking up the text, in the hope that there may have been a glimmer of hope for Agnes or Shuggie.
I found myself truly invested in the characters, almost emotionally attached - not to give away too much to those that haven’t read it, but there was one point, where Agnes was out for a meal when I audibly gasped and put my hand over my own mouth whilst reading. I found myself rooting for this family, wishing there would be a happy ending, but dreading reaching the end for fear there wasn’t going to be.
I really enjoyed this book, but found it incredibly emotional and somehow haunting - I have found myself thinking about it long after I’ve actually finished it and moved onto another book.
I would certainly recommend this book, but emotionally its not an easy read.
I don’t think this is a book I would have picked up and read (actually I know it isn't!), so I’m thrilled that our little Devon book club, Books and Banter, were selected to receive and review it.
I struggled with the first handful of chapters, finding the Glaswegian dialect tricky, and the subject matter dark, plus the fact there are 2 characters with the same name! However, I quickly became invested in the characters as well as the history that I knew little about. The story was so beautifully written, with detail so deep and raw that it felt it must have been written from real life experiences. The relationship between Agnes and her son is tragic, and I am grateful for the moments of hope within the book, no matter how short lived they tended to be. I'm not sure I could have continued reading without them!
The phone call on the night where Shuggie located his mum with his repetitive cries of ‘where are you mum, I’m hungry’ will stick with me for a long time.
A vivid, heart wrenching story. I would highly recommend it.
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.