The number one rule for writers is to write what you know. Douglas Stuart knows exactly what he is writing about and it’s amazing he escaped his childhood. Set in the 1980’s Glasgow Scotland recession, Shuggie Bain is a young boy who tries to navigate life with an alcoholic mother who is both destructive and self-destructive.
“The city was changing; [Shuggie’s father] could see it in people’s faces. Glasgow was losing its purpose … He had heard them say that Thatcher didn’t want honest workers any more; her future was technology and nuclear power and private health. Industrial days were over, and the bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springburn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs.”p 44
One night Shuggie is with his stone drunk mother and compares her to the images of women painted on lager beer cans [Agnes’ preferred drink].
“As she gripped him, he could see her face was lopsided, the paint on her eyes was blurred and running away. It looked like the lager beauties sometimes did, a careless printer and a misaligned screen, and suddenly the woman was no longer whole, just a mess of different layers.”p 53
When Shuggie is a pre-teen and young teenager, he lives with his older brother, Leek, and mother, stuck far out of the city in a decrepit house in a mining town with a closed mine. In addition to dealing with an alcoholic mother, he knows something different about him. The other school kids pick on him mercilessly.
“He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.”p 144
His mother, Agnes, has a strength she tries to project to the outer world. “Never let them see you cry” seems to be her motto.
“She was no use at maths h homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”p 238
She was indeed strong, pretty, and witty and her fierce inner force kept her moving through life. But in a few scenes we see her as the others see her and it isn’t pretty.
Through the years as he is tied to his mother. Shuggie has to mature quickly. Agnes would drink the weekly dolement in one or two days so Shuggie has to learn to manage the money so they won’t starve.
“For years the drink had held them stuck, like they were frozen, robbing decades from them, spinning them out of the world and sucking the literal life from them.”p 252
His father and his brother urge Shuggie to get away – but where is he going to go at his age? His brother is gone and his father has another wife with a houseful of other kids. Instead, Shuggie hopes against hope that he can make her better and he can be enough for her.
“‘She’s never going to get off the drink.’ [his brother told him] Shuggie was staring into the swampy broth. ‘She might. I just have to try harder to help her. Be good to her. Keep myself tidy. I can make her better.'”p 351
This was a difficult book to read. I started on October 29 but didn’t finish until December 19. I read the first chapter and took a week off; then I read the next chapter and wondered if I could go on. After a few weeks I finally went back to it and found I couldn’t put it down. Stuart writes poignant descriptions of the terrible neighborhood he is stuck in, his troubles with schoolmates, his brother, and of course his mother.
Conservatives argue that people should all be left alone by the government; since everyone has equal chances, the fittest will prevail. But this novel shows that some people have enormous road blocks in their lives: hunger, no effective parenting, and living in a place with no care in the present and no real hope for a future. Douglas Stuart was able to rise above his conditions, but thousands upon thousands can’t and don’t.
This novel won the 2020 Booker prize and was a National Book Award Finalist. If you can steel yourself for the horrible life this child has, it is a beautiful book.