Shuggie Bain - Reader Reviews for the Booker Prize 2020

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The Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. It is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for over 50 years.

The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.

Shuggie Bain

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.

Preschool Parents Book Club

This book is about families, love and addiction through the eyes of Shuggie Bain, the youngest child of Agnes Bain, describing the daily struggles in 80’s Glasgow of working poor, trying to escape into a better life.

As a reading group of parents of preschool/primary aged children, juggling our time to give the best lives to our children as well as ourselves Agnes was a relatable character in keeping herself and her family together. Her feeling of not being able to get away, or get out of Pithead felt frustratingly relatable, especially being read during COVID, with limited movement/escape opportunities and financial worries.
Douglas Stuart writes with a unique clarity, warmth and heartache that transports you right into the centre of the Bain household, seeing what Shuggie sees as he grows, interacting with a range of characters both family and neighbours that are vivid and real. These characters feel recognisable, with their strengths, flaws and humanity – you can feel their sadness, their hope, their love. It highlights a rawness to poverty that was sometimes so unyielding and vivid, you wanted to look away, with several reading group members unable to finish the book – this realism made Shuggie Bain an emotional upsetting yet a melancholically hopeful read, creating a visceral reading experience.

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Whilst this was set in ‘80’s Glasgow, the issues & emotions make it feel real for any time or place with its underlying theme of poverty, family, friendship, love & addiction.

Ellie said….. “A very tough read at times, beautifully written characters that you really care for. Had to read it in stages as it was a heavy read with lots of sadness and heartache – really wanted to remove Shuggie and protect him!. Yet at the same time, Douglas wrote Agnes so well that she was also someone who really needed protecting too.”

Shuggie Bain was discussed in our 6th virtual meeting during the COVID pandemic. In honour of Agnes and Shuggie, we ‘dressed up’ for our Zoom meeting, to be as colourful & bright and to ‘stand out’ as Agnes or Shuggie would have liked, using our brightest, glittery nail polishes (or our children’s felt tip pens!).

We renamed ourselves after some of our favourite female characters in Shuggie Bain, discussing their varied characters and strengths.

We discussed then described the book in three words, rating the book out of ‘5’:

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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 too difficult & upsetting 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
Keep, Going, Shuggie! – 5/5

Overall we would give it a 5/5

Books and Banter

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Our book club Books and Banter, based in Blackborough, Mid-Devon, got together on a blustery October evening to discuss our Booker Shortlisted book Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. We had all finished the book with exception of one person who was finding it too distressing. Others in the group also found it distressing but also compelling to read and all could appreciate the mastery of the storytelling. We used the Reader’s Guide to prompt our discussion a little but also discussed the book more widely. The overwhelming impression among our group was how real the book felt. A couple of scenes were highlighted to exemplify this – when Shuggie was in the taxi being driven to find his mother on New Year’s Eve and when Agnes set fire to the curtains in the flat. There was a sense that it was quite cinematic in feel.

Mostly we loved the use of the Glaswegian dialect in the novel as it really conjured up atmosphere. However we think the experience of this may have differed depending on whether you were listening or reading in book form or on Kindle. There were quite a few words we weren’t familiar with, definitions of which were easy to look up if reading digitally, but were often difficult to catch if listening. They definitely added to the sense of place though so we were glad he incorporated these colloquialisms.

Sadly we didn’t think there would be better help for Agnes now. In our experiences local alcohol support services such as rehabilitation centres are closing due to funding cuts. It is incredibly hard to help anyone with an addiction if they don’t want to be helped or are in denial of their problem. Agnes did so well with AA and we were all so annoyed at Eugene for de-railing her, but we didn’t believe he did it for malicious reasons. Rather we concluded he was naive about the realities of addiction and wanted Agnes to be “normal” in a society where the societal norm is social drinking. He couldn’t imagine being with her if she didn’t conform to his expectation of a “normal” woman. There is still a stigma attached to not drinking (at least among our generation, we are mostly in our 40s). People assume something is wrong with you if you don’t drink, although I hope this is gradually changing as a greater proportion of the younger generation choose not to drink.

We didn’t blame Catherine and Leek for leaving Shuggie behind, they had done all they could and had eventually lost hope that Agnes would change and get better. Perhaps Shuggie stayed because he loved her and still had hope or perhaps because he was the last one and someone had to do it or both. We found the ending of the book quite cathartic, a bit of a relief after the tension of the story.

All in all our consensus was that Shuggie Bain is not really an enjoyable book as it is such a harrowing story, but that it is very well written and painted a staggeringly realistic picture of a desperate situation of deprivation and addiction that we, in our group, are all most fortunate not to have had much direct experience of ourselves. We think it would be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize and wish Douglas Stuart the very best of luck in the competition and for the future. Several of us said we might not ordinarily have picked up Shuggie Bain but we were very glad to have been allocated it.

Get involved

Have you read Shuggie Bain? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.

Want to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for Shuggie Bain, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.

Find out about the other books on the shortlist.

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