I’m not sure how much of Douglas Stuart’s debut is autobiographical but the first paragraph of his acknowledgements page suggests more than a smidgeon. Given that’s the page I often visit before reading a novel, Shuggie Bain was even more poignant for me than it would otherwise have been. Set in ’80s Glasgow, Stuart’s book follows the eponymous Shuggie over a decade from the age of five, ceaselessly bullied for his fastidious ways and devoted to his alcoholic mother.
Agnes and her husband live in a tiny tenement flat with her parents and three children, two from her first marriage. Shug is a cab driver on the night shift, always on the lookout for pretty women. Agnes is a proud beauty whose superiority makes her no friends, given to angry self-pity once the booze sets in. Catherine and Leek have learnt to look out for themselves but Shuggie adores his mother, aping her superior ways and earning himself a torrent of abuse for doing so. The local children can spot a soft target – they know Shuggie likes to play with dolls and they torment him for it. When Shug delivers the family to the door of the house he’s long promised, Agnes is appalled. Surrounded by slag heaps, Pithead is unravelling with the closure of the mines, unemployment the norm, families barely subsisting and rife with substance abuse. Things go from bad to worse when Shug disappears, done with Agnes’ stream of drunken abuse, leaving the neighbours agog and only too pleased to see their uppity neighbour brought down a peg of two. This is where Shuggie will live until he’s nearly sixteen, juggling school with caring for Agnes as first Catherine then Leek walk out in desperation.
Always has too much to say for himself. I saw him skipping a rope the other day. Ye’ll be whanting tae nip that in the bud
Stuart opens his novel in 1992, winding back eleven years to tell the story of how Shuggie has arrived at a rundown bedsit paid for by his supermarket job around which he tries to squeeze school. The deprivation of ‘80s Glasgow, its industries ravaged and in decline, is portrayed in plain yet vivid language and Stuart manages that tricky thing of bringing dialect to life on the page. Shuggie is both a convincing and engaging character, his utter devotion to his proud beautiful mother destroyed by drink, heartrending. Child carers are not often portrayed in fiction – Stuart brings home its devastating effects, never more so than in the few scenes with Leanne, a girl who spots in Shuggie the marks of her own experience. Given its themes and synopsis, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a story of unremitting gloom but Stuart delivers it with a great deal of sharp, dry wit, leavening the pathos. Thoroughly deserving of all the pre-publication praise heaped on it, not to mention its presence on the Booker Prize longlist. I see from the press release that Stuart’s finished work on his second novel. Already looking forward to it.
Picador: London 9781529019278 448 pages Hardback