Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I woke up this morning and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was on The Booker Prize long list. And my heart leapt. Because hands down this has been one of the most accomplished, raw and heart breaking novels I have read in a very long time. And I have read some great books this year.

Published by Picador and due for release on 6th August, I am indebted to Camilla Elworthy for my copy.

I have been hoarding this one away for a while now, waiting for a space in time when I could immerse myself in it. And immerse myself I did.

This debut novel is set in working class Glasgow. It spans the early 80’s, through to the early 90’s and encompasses a period of huge social decline. Thatcher is in power, heavy industry is closing. The Clyde’s ship yards are in free fall, as are the mines on the edge of the city. Mass unemployment, social deprivation and poverty is the backdrop to this story.

For this is the story of a boy, Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his adored mother Agnes. Proud and striking, Agnes adores her boy in return. But he is in a continual fight for her attention, first and periodically with the men of her life, his own father Shug included. But continually and crucially with alcohol. For Agnes is an alcoholic. A proud, feisty alcoholic, with standards of cleanliness and a show for the neighbours. An alcoholic who believes that a better future is always just around the corner. But an alcoholic just the same.

When Agnes follows her husband to a mining town on the edges of the city, chasing the promises of a better life Shuggie’s world turns upside down. The estate they find themselves on is broken and in free fall. His father disappears, leaving the family with nothing but a crowd of suspicious neighbours and a weekly benefits cheque.

It is here that Agnes’ drinking begins in earnest and slowly as his older siblings distance themselves from the inevitable, it is Shuggie who is left to pick up the pieces. Shuggie who is no more than a child and a child who is struggling to fit in to his surroundings, who is living on the very limits of his endurance, whilst grappling with his own emerging sexuality.

Shuggie Bain is written from the heart. This is, I am aware, an over used phrase. But sometimes you read something that you know comes from the core of someone’s being. That is written with such accuracy and authenticity that no amount of research could replicate, no matter how hard it tried.

The sense of time and place that encompasses this novel draws you in and pins you there. There are times in this story when you will want to look away, when the unfolding events make for more than uncomfortable reading and your heart will break again. But the narrative won’t let you look away, if you are with Shuggie at the beginning I can guarantee you will be with him at the end.

The characters in this novel are real. They command the story, they drew you back in and their experiences explode across the page, pulling your sympathies this way and that. You will scream at them, cry with and laugh out loud. And surprisingly, it will be very hard to judge. For even on her darkest days, even at her lowest ebb Agnes will command your sympathies. This is the skill of Stuart’s writing. He presents Agnes as a whole. She is more that her illness, more that the can of Special Brew waiting under the sink. She,and all those around her, live and breathe in these pages. Alongside the tragedy, the deprivation and the waste, there is humour, solidarity, fight and so much love.

This is a story about what people, and particularly women, will do to survive. Nothing in this novel is linear. It is about life, love and everything in between. It is about the way life can soar and then can crash, how things can flip in a heart beat but how life can slowly creep up when you are not looking and change the world for good or ill. You will find no stereotypes here, just people, with all their joys and faults. And just like the people of this novel your heart will break and your heart will soar. Through the vulnerability of a child you will see this story laid bare, both hope and hopelessness.

Sometimes a book comes along that all politicians, civil servants and social policy makers should read. When anyone of these people is becoming jaded and seeing only numbers and caseloads , making sweeping statements and generalisations someone needs to march along and shove a copy of Shuggie Bain right under their noses.

This one is a belter. And it’s my Booker Prize winner right there.

Rachel x

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