Unrelentingly miserable – and very, very good

Review: Vivien Horler

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Booker Prize-winning novels. Some are marvelously readable, like Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels (the third one was too, but it didn’t win the prize).

Then there are the more experimental novels, like George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, or Anna Burns’s Milkman, in which none of the characters is named and of which one reviewer said: “told in an unspooling, digressive, and fretfully ruminative manner”.

Shuggie Bain is much more straightforward than those, and while author Douglas Stuart does use a certain amount of Glaswegian dialect, it is perfectly readable.

It’s also unrelentingly miserable, and very, very good.

The novel takes its name from its protagonist, Shuggie Bain, who is in his mid-teens and living alone when we meet him working the deli counter in a Glaswegian grocery store. (“No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens…”)

How he got there is the story of the book. He is the youngest of three children and started out living in a Glasgow tenement with his parents and grandparents.

His mother Agnes is desperate for her “own front door”, so his taxi-driver father, a man happy to use his fists on his wife from time to time, moves the family to a bleak former mining village on the outskirts of the city, where no one has a job or any money except the weekly benefit.

Soon afterwards Shuggie’s father abandons the family for another woman, and not long after that Shuggie’s older sister marries and moves to South Africa. A while later his brother leaves home too, and then it’s just Shuggie, Agnes, her cans of lager and her vodka.

Often there is nothing to eat. On the days when there is nothing to drink either, Agnes becomes entirely unreasonable and violently furious. Then she has to go out on the town in the hopes of finding a generous man.

On the surface Agnes is refined, dresses well and speaks nicely. The neighbouring women hate her, and their sons hate Shuggie too.  They tell him he’s a wee poof. He doesn’t know what that means, so they explain. “A poof is a boy who wants to be a wee girl.”

The years roll by. Agnes manages to get on the wagon. There is food in the house and things are much better for a year or so. She meets a good man and for a while things go well, but then she starts to drink again.

The man leaves, and Shuggie is the one who undresses his passed-out mother and puts her to bed. He tries to hide money for food, but Agnes always finds it and buys drink. A worried 10-year-old Shuggie believes if he were a better son, he could “save” her, despite what his brother tells him.

In his acknowledgements Stuart says he owes everything to the memories of his mother and her struggle. He doesn’t say her struggle with alcohol, but his portrayal of Agnes rings so hideously true, it is clear he lived through much of Shuggie’s early life.

In a piece on Lithub, the daily literary website, that he wrote about growing up poor in the late 1970s and 1980s in Glasgow, Stuart says his home was one without books and surrounded by poverty. At the time Thatcher-era economic policies had moved industry away from the west coast of Scotland, leaving behind unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse.

The hopelessness of it all makes for grim reading. I was reminded of Marlene van Niekerk’s brilliant but equally soul destroying Triomf, about life in the white working-class Joburg suburb that replaced Sofiatown. It was all so awful, but you couldn’t abandon the book because it was so good.

Unrelentingly miserable… and yet. By the end of Shuggie Bain, there is a measure of redemption and a glimpse of hope. Not a book to be forgotten.

One thought on “Unrelentingly miserable – and very, very good

  1. David Bristow

    I never read “Triomf” but it got me thinking: it was “so awful” – now this is privileged white people, who replaced the mostly black people there, which we are led to believe were generally happy and vibrant, if poor. Was Triomf the bottle of the white barrel, but Sophiatown the top of the black one? PhD anyone?


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