Book #01

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Agnes Bain had always expected more. In the Glasgow of the early 80s, she dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright. When her philandering husband ups and leaves, she and her three children find themselves trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes increasingly turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. Yet one by one they abandon her in order to save themselves.

It's her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. But Shuggie has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a normal boy, everyone has started to realise that Shuggie is 'no right'. Agnes wants to be there for her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her - even her beloved Shuggie.

Shuggie Bain is growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s, whilst the city is deep in the grip of Thatcherism. Poverty is rife, money is scarce, and his mother Agnes is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism.

Agnes is a deeply heartbreaking character. As we see each and every one of her low points drive her back to her addiction, we also see a wee boy trying desperately to hide drink, stow money away for food, and take steps to stop his mother hurting herself both physically and emotionally. For what she puts her children through, Agnes should really be the antagonist of this novel, but her deep desire to improve, her dreams and aspirations, make her a hopeless case to be pitied. She takes pride in her appearance, she holds her head high as she walks through the scheme, she paints herself as someone who has their life together entirely, whilst inside her heart and her home, everything is irrevocably broken.

We also see Shuggie himself battle with his own personal demon - himself. He recognises he’s markedly different from the other weans on the scheme - better spoken, more interested in colours and fabrics than football, definitely not interested in girls - but he can’t quite comprehend how to be ‘normal’. Although his brother tries to support him by showing him how normal boys behave, even down to showing him how to walk instead of strut, Shuggie remains desperately the same wee boy. He’s bullied, he’s cast out, he’s left completely puzzled and shunned, and seeing this all take place as a reader is an incredible blow to the heart.

Stuart’s prose here, although bleak, is definitively engaging and wonderfully written. His characters are perfect depictions of Glasgow men and women, as he shows the desperation to be powerful, the desire to be in control of their own lives, their endless scrapings to get by, and the almost futile aspirations to rise above the neighbors. 

Despite Stuart’s bleak and murky depiction of Glasgow in the 80s (and the thought that keeps rolling around in my head is that it’s still bleak and murky for the most part), there’s a lot of shining light in this novel. Love is apparent, whether outright or reluctant. There are moments of joy to contrast with the moments of heartbreak, and isn’t that true of all our little lives. The smallest things can pull us through, whether it’s 50p stolen from the gas meter to buy a wee bar of chocolate, or just a moment alone where you can be yourself.

Such a tragic and stark account of life, but an important one to understand. This is a masterpiece of a debut from Stuart, and an absolutely unforgettable story of a boy who loved his mother with such a ferocity, but who ultimately realised fierce love couldn’t save her.