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

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

On 23rd June Picador published the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of The Wonder and Room. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof, a massive thank you goes to Alice May Dewing, and The Pull of the Stars has leapt on to my books of the year list.

The novel is set in Dublin in 1918. It is November and the armistice is actually only days away. But after 4 years of fighting, political unrest and now a crippling Flu pandemic, hope seems out of reach. The novel’s title is in fact taken from the Medieval Italian translation of influenza; influenza delle stelle- ‘the influence of the stars’.

Nurse Julia Power is working long and impossible days on a maternity ward, where expectant mothers who are suffering from the Flu are quarantined. The hospital is understaffed, running low on supplies and Dublin is descending into chaos. Julia travels across town each day, leaving her brother Tim alone, a brother rendered mute by his experiences in the War.

The novel takes place over the course of three days, and centres on Julia and two other key women characters. Doctor Kathleen Lynn is compassionate, controlled and a political revolutionary, hiding from the police under the cover of the hospital. Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer, raised by nuns in a local orphanage. Bridie is quick to learn, intelligent but has lived a life of unspeakable hardship and deprivation.

The three women are thrown together in the most extreme of circumstances. The pandemic is unchecked, the disease is not behaving in the way other influenzas have and medical professionals are learning on the job. The advice to the public is changing daily but the obvious and harsh reality is that the poor of Dublin can not afford to suspend their lives, and the disease continues to thrive. Death is everywhere and often sudden.

Under such circumstances the usual hierarchies and routines of the hospital are hard to maintain. The three central women characters are learning from each other, in all of kinds ways. It is fair to say that the three days depicted here change all the women in ways they would never have imagined.

Here are three women of different social standing, working seemlessly together. Bridie is the conduit through which the reader begins to understand the realities of maternity care and childbirth during this period. She also teaches the assured but socially naïve Julia about the realities of poverty in Dublin at the time.

It is through Bridie that Julia, and indeed the reader, begin to understand the foundations that underpin the poverty of the time. Foundations that often begin and end with the Catholic Church. Bridie’s experiences lay bare the cruelty of the Irish Homes run by the Church, where children weren’t told birth dates or their given names. Where families were separated and their relationships erased and denied. Where twisted morality was used as a pretence to divide families and where unmarried women where made to work off their stays in the homes for years, the time dependent on how many children they had out of wedlock, no mitigating circumstances considered .

All of this knowledge, translated by Bridie to Julia through the circumstances of the women that they care for, is powerful and shocking. It is the connections and bonds that forms between these two women that push their relationship forward into new and unfamiliar territory.

Following the theme of social awareness and learning, Dr Lynn, a revolutionary and member of the Irish Citizen Army, offers Julia a unique inside the Dublin’s political struggle, taking her beyond the propaganda of the nationalist press and offering her an alternative perspective.
Each women offers the other knowledge, experience and an alternative viewpoint. Even in the darkest of times, these are women empowering each other.

This novel is the best kind of historical fiction, where research and detail are woven beautifully into the narrative. It is a book which I learnt from continually, but at no point did the flow of the characters story feel compromised or interrupted.

Of course as this is a novel about a pandemic, all sorts of parrallels can be drawn our current situation. But imagine a pandemic at the end of a war, in a country that is half starved, fighting it’s own internal political and religious struggle, where communities are pitted against each other. Imagine what it would be like to not have the technology allowing loved ones to keep in touch, to not have any government support to enable workers to self isolate and still feed their families. For the poor of Dublin not working equated to certain death for themselves and their families.


But this story is also about another pandemic. The realities of a child bearing at the beginning of the last century in a country that refused to allow any form of family planning. Where large families were the norm and a women’s health came a poor second. Where a potentially viable fetus would be delivered post-mortem regardless of what it chances of survival would be and whether anyone would be able to care for it. Of a time before antibiotics, when the period after a delivery was as perilous if not more so than the birth its self.

This is a story that is told with skill and heart. At a time of great challenge, when the world seemed to be falling into despair and disrepair, the interactions and friendship of these three women, over these three days, are the spark of hope which pulled the world along .

This is a must read.

Rachel x

Book review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

Sometimes a book creeps up on. You begin reading and you think it is one thing, and then quite suddenly you realise it is something quite different; something all together more complex and thought provoking.

This was exactly my experience with Jessie Burton’s The Confession, published September 2019, by Picador.

From the beginning this novel was absorbing and well plotted, and I was immediately entertained. But it wasn’t until the final third when the book ambushed me. The writing throughout is, as you would expect spectacular, but suddenly the book’s message crystallises, and this book moves to another level.

This is the story of two generations, told across two time periods; it is the story of a search for identify and roots.

Firstly, in the early 1980’s Elise Morceau, young, beautiful and but seemingly directionless, embarks upon a relationship with an older woman. Constance Holden, Connie, is a confident and successful writer. At the top of her game, Connie’s work is gaining international acclaim, and Hollywood beckons as her first novel is being made into a star studded film.

Following her lover to LA, Elise begins to question their relationship and importantly her own sense of identity. As events take a dramatic turn, Elsie’s life changes forever.

Thirty years later we met Rose, who has been brought up by her father; her mother having disappeared when she was just a baby. Finally her father begins to open up about her mother’s disappearance, telling Rose that Connie Holden was the last person to see her mother. Now in her thirties, Rose begins to question her own path through life and she has a renewed need to find out more about her past. Armed with her father’s fragmented memories she looks for a way to connect with Connie, who has cut herself off from the world.

It is clear that even in its own right the story is strong. The writing is sharp and insightful, there is just the right sense of urgency in relation to pace and tension. But it is the underlying questions and themes that book both embraces and raises that make this such an insightful and memorable read.

This a novel that questions our relationships and how they define us. It asks poignant and often difficult questions about the way we establish our own identity. Burton looks at the way we often rely on others to give us a sense of our own worth, and asks whether it is someone’s else’s responsibility to make us whole.

She examines relationships, highlighting both extreme highs and lows. She explores how her characters seem to cling to the familiar, and the need to be wanted even when things are falling apart. Each relationship within the novel is flawed, each is not an equal sum of it’s parts. We see the immediate and dramatic effect of cruelty and betrayal, but also the slow decline brought about by apathy and boredom.

There is a clear focus on the need to establish a sense of self. For Connie, this seems to be tied up with her writing, for Elise, ironically, she finds out more about her true values by taking on the role and persona of another.

Continuing the theme of self and identity, Burton tackles head on the theme of motherhood. Sometimes brutal in her honesty, she explores the idea that, on some level, a women’s identity is bound up in her sexuality and biology. She questions, for example, the assumption that all women have the capacity to be a ‘mother’. Or maybe that all women, should feel the social and personal pressure to mother.

It is often said of a woman that she is foolish to consider herself the mistress of her time. Her body had other plans. When it comes to children, people parrot, ‘there’s never a good time’ – but I would counter that with that with the truth that there can be a bad time, too. When it isn’t their own body and life – their own time – under discussion, people blithely generalize, even prioritize the myth of the perfect unborn over more complicated existences already here, now. It’s only those who have become mothers who might put their hand on your arm, and tell you, wait

The Confession- Jessie Burton – pg 438

Burton explores the idea of how effective can you be as a mother , shaping and nurturing the identify of another, if you don’t have a true sense of your own worth and identify. In fact how secure is any relationship where one individual is lost or unsure?

The messages and context of this book seemed to grow the more I read. I do believe that this is one of those books that will give up yet more secrets each time you read it. This one is a keeper.

Rachel x

Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Before I start , quick question would writing in loud, shouty capitals

“THIS BOOK IS AMAZING, I COMMAND YOU TO BUY IT!”,

 cut it as a book review?

No? Thought not. Well then we have a problem because I am actually a bit – well, very – scared to review this book. I enjoyed it so much that I am worried that I can’t do a good enough job in conveying how beautiful and complex it is. I just don’t know if I can do it justice, I feel I might some how break the spell it wove around me by trying to write about it. 

But,  on the other hand, I can’t ignore it. It is one of the most amazing books that I have read this year. So I can’t be a ‘proper’ book blogger if I don’t write about, so here goes. 

 

 The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is set in Victorian London. It is 1850 and the Great Exhibition is on the verge of opening. Iris and her twin Rose are working in a Doll Makers shop. Discontented with her lot Iris dreams of being an artist. A chance meeting leads her to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost. She becomes his model, his muse and a developing painter in her own right, changing her life completely. But in escaping her life in the doll shop Iris incurs the disapproval of her parents and her sister. Cut loose from her family ties Iris is drawn further into the artist’s world, becoming Louis lover and caught up in his desires for a a place in the Academy Exhibition. 

Silas Reed is watching Iris. Introduced to her by street urchin Albie, he is convinced that she is the girl he needs to make his life complete. A loner, working as a taxidermist, dreaming of creating his own exhibition, he is waiting to make Iris his own. 

From the beginning of the novel Macneal’s sense of place and time is impeccable and vivid. There is a vibrancy within the writing which speaks to the reader, drawing them into the streets of London. From the outset that tradition and mainstay of Victorian literature is present; the duality of the city. The ever present fact that grime and art, wealth and poverty exist together, and that neither is ever far from the other. Moreover one feeds and enables the other. For example Albie, brings his dead rotting animals to Silas; who in turn stuffs them and sells them on to Louis and his Brotherhood. Nothing in this city is what it seems, appearances are most definitely deceptive.

And once you have picked up on this motif of duality you find it expertly woven everywhere. It’s in the characters of Iris and her twin Rose. One outward looking, seeing beyond her own limitations and reaching for freedom; the other constrained by her physical scars and trapped in the doll shop, resentful of her sisters choices.

Albie, with his poverty but keen emotional intelligence is the nemesis of Silas. Silas, brooding, resentful and increasingly menacing. We seem him develop from a vaguely ridiculous man with harmless delusions of grandeur to a threatening presence. It is Albie, watchful and wise beyond his years who sees the danger.

But what of Louis, where does he fit into this web of duality? Louis and his brotherhood are devoted to capturing life in art, making a true and accurate presentation of what is before them. Like Silas’ taxidermy, their art is striving to preserve an image for posterity. Life in Victorian London is fragile, easily taken away. Be it a stuffed dog, an Academy painting or a doll modelled on a dead child, everyone is in a race to preserve precious life.

Everyone except Silas. Silas has slipped beyond presentation and duplication and into the sinister realms of possession. The possession of life and all that entails. In Silas we see the ultimate duality, just how easily love and affection can fester and tip into the dark realms of obsession and hate. Compare the twisted longing of Silas to the open enabling affection of Louis and we are right back in the arms of duality. Genuis stuff!

Genuis rides again by making the backdrop to this novel the Great Exhibition. Throughout the novel the motif of display is present. Louis and his Brethren dream of the Academy, Silas is looking to create a museum of curios, Iris wants to exhibit her work , the Doll shop and it’s wares; all build a picture of art imitating life but also they force us to question how real they actually are. London itself could be seen as one big exhibition, where nothing is quite as it seems.

For every major character in this novel is an outcast, an anomaly, working on the edges of society. Albie; an urchin, ducking and diving. Silas; social awkward, ridiculed and alone. Rose; disfigured by illness and Iris; born with physical imperfection. Louis and his artistic circle; all working outside the bounds of accepted norms and techniques. It is a cast of misfits. Or curiosities in an exhibition.

This plot is a living museum, where the reader can peek in and see how the characters make the best of the hand they are dealt. Do they turn their differences into strengths, striding forwards like Albie, Louis and Iris to make their mark on the world? Or do they let past misfortunes turn inwards and fester, leaving them bitter, constrained and resentful like Rose and Silas? How do they achieve freedom and how do they use the freedom they gain?

I adored this novel. I loved it’s characters, watching them grow either with confidence and bravado or quiet, creaking menace. I loved the setting, the creeping poverty in juxtaposition with bright lights of London. I loved the plot, infused with humour, pathos and terror. I loved it all.

Thank you Elizabeth Macneal. How long before I am allowed to reread?