Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: ‘I’d do anything for you’

Shuggie Bain by Douglas StuartI’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

22 thoughts on “Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: ‘I’d do anything for you’”

  1. Brilliant review Susan. I have this one, and I’ll admit, I’ve put off reading it because I’m not sure I can deal with a sad tale at the moment. I shall have to make time for it.

  2. Wonderful review of Shuggie Bain, Susan. I agree with you that this deserves its Booker longlisting. I admired how Douglas Stuart wrote about something without it being unremittingly bleak and gave me a glimpse of the love and hope which was also part of their story.

      1. Oh definitely, and without that I think we would have come away from it feeling battered and wrung out but that’s not the lasting impression I have of this book.

  3. This does sound like the kind of novel usually written by Irish writers! Definitely one to check out though. The Booker longlist has thrown up lots of interesting candidates.

  4. I had assumed that this would be “unremitting gloom“ and so given the current climate have been avoiding it. Maybe I shouldn’t. I wasn’t brought up in Glasgow, but some of my experiences in inner-city Birmingham sounds as though they might well be reflected here.

    1. It took me some time to get around to reading it for that very reason. It would be misleading to suggest it’s not a harrowing read at times but there’s lots of dry wit to ease things along and hope, too. I hope you’ll read it, Ann.

  5. I’m not a big reader of misery-lit but this does sound really appealing due to the hope and dry wit. And I do love Glasgow! (With the heat this week I’ve been looking at the weather maps thinking ‘If I was in Glasgow right now I could get a good night’s sleep’ 😀 )

    1. I tend to find that misery-lit can be very self indulgent but there’s none of that with Stuart. Hasn’t it been grim? So humid. I think we’re all feeling a little ragged one way and another.

  6. The acknowledgments in a book are so helpful/revealing/curious. That’s usually what i read first too, especially with Canadian authors’ books! The idea that the author has so deftly employed wit here, to buoy or balance his character’s pain, intrigues me greatly.

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