By Nathan Choat
“It was clear now: nobody would get to be brand new.” So reflects young Shuggie, the titular character of Douglas Stuart’s hugely accomplished Shuggie Bain, despondent and embattled by the harsh realities of working-class life in 1980s Glasgow. On one level, Stuart’s debut is a harrowing read, with his illustration of Glasgow serving as a vivid diorama of loss. Experiences of poverty and addiction are tackled head-on, often with devastating effect. However, having grown up in Glasgow at a similar time to Shuggie, Stuart’s novel can also be read as a kind of conflicted love letter to the city and its people. Shuggie Bain had the potential to be a story dominated by darkness, but Stuart is remarkably empathetic, elevating the lighter moments and unearthing the humanity of most every character we meet. At its heart is a cautiously hopeful tale about the strength of love between a mother and a son, and how it continues to endure against all odds.
Very early on, it becomes clear that although the novel is called Shuggie Bain, it could just as well be named after Shuggie’s mother, Agnes. A proud and intelligent woman, Agnes feels suffocated by her small life, raising a family in the small childhood flat that she grew up in, and in which her parents still live. Her neglectful husband, Big Shug, is abusive, and often spends nights with other women. Nevertheless, when he offers Agnes the chance of a new home and a new life, she quickly seizes on the opportunity – as Shuggie notes later in the novel, Agnes “would not go back to a life she knew the edges of”. Once they arrive at their new home, however, Big Shug abandons Agnes and the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. It is this that sparks Agnes’ spiral of alcoholism, a spiral that slowly but surely drags down herself, her children, and everyone whose life she touches.
A cautiously hopeful tale about the strength of love between a mother and a son, and how it continues to endure
Shuggie Bain meditates on the far-reaching impact that alcoholism can have, and in this case it is Agnes’ three children who are left to pick up the pieces of their mother’s broken life. The financial and emotional strain that this puts them under is immense, and Stuart movingly portrays this through a sequence of heart-wrenching scenes: from the transitory, crushing hope of an episode of sobriety, to the stomach-churning dread Shuggie feels at the end of the school day, unsure of what awaits him at home. And yet, as Agnes’ destructive behaviours push away those closest to her, it is Shuggie who stays by her side. In some of the more intimate moments of the novel, we see Shuggie caring for his drunk mother, removing her shoes, unclipping her bra, turning her head so she doesn’t choke on her vomit in the night. It is a sad portrayal of a child forced to grow up far too quickly.
The novel is permeated by a sense of loss. Even the landscape of Pithead – the housing scheme on which the Bain family live – is joyless and devoid of hope, with the abandoned mine leaving behind vistas of dirty black slag heaps. Stuart convincingly captures a time when men have lost their ability to put food on the table after Glasgow’s mines and shipyards were decimated by the policies of Margaret Thatcher, and women and children have lost any hope for a brighter future. When an entire class of people mourn a life that they were promised but can no longer have, poverty and addiction are the by-products.
Stuart convincingly captures a time when men have lost their ability to put food on the table…when an entire class of people mourn a life that they were promised but can no longer have.
The antidote to this apparent hopelessness, according to Stuart, is pride, and the dogged ability to carry on in the face of adversity. The women in this novel, in particular, are presented as enterprising and resourceful, determined to make a life for themselves and their families with what little resources they have available to them. When Shuggie is struggling to navigate the world outside, it is Agnes who confronts him about it, telling him to go out and face his fears. “Just hold your head up high” she urges, “and Gie. It. Laldy.” Stuart focuses heavily on the experiences of women in a stereotypically masculine environment, and for this he must be praised. Whereas male characters drift in and out of Shuggie’s life, the female presence is consistent, and it is from these female characters that Shuggie learns how to take on the world.
Shuggie Bain is a towering debut, absolutely worthy of a place on the Booker Prize longlist. Through its exploration of love and loss, it teaches us an important lesson for now: whatever someone is going through, there is more to their story than meets the eye.
Image: Sol Noya Carreno