Book Review: “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

This is a book that was on almost every “Top Ten” list for last year, and won the 2020 Booker Prize.  I loved it, but I have hesitated to review the book because it is sad, gritty, and difficult. Reading a long book that recounts the many horrors of a poor family splintered by alcoholism may not be the escape you seek right now.  But for me, Douglas Stuart’s book (his first published novel) is well worth the investment.

The story is set in 1980s Glasgow.  At the very beginning, we briefly meet Shuggie Bain as a teenager. We learn he is living alone and scraping by working in a supermarket. The rest of the book then details the long and tragic story of how he got to this place.  It is a simple sequence of events on the surface.  His parents’ marriage fails, and his father (Big Shuggie, a taxi driver) moves his ragingly alcoholic wife (Agnes) and their three children to a poor, dirty neighborhood on the outskirts of Glasgow, a public housing tract surrounded by slag piles and inhabited mostly by large, hardscrabble families of unemployed miners.  Big Shuggie doesn’t look back, and rarely checks in on them.  He has already taken up with another woman.  

Little Shuggie, the baby in the family, seems like a tiny, sad adult. He has a teen-aged sister who has already begun distancing herself from Agnes and her siblings; she escapes by marrying and moving to South Africa.  Shuggie’s brother hangs on to his menial day job (and to Shuggie) for as long as possible but eventually leaves, too.  Shuggie, now a preadolescent, must cope with and care for Agnes.  There are short stretches of hopefulness in their story, but of course, all does not end well.  Agnes always strives to maintains appearances, and to overcome her addiction, but in the end cannot beat it.

Complicating things further is the fact that Shuggie is gay.  He knows he is different. Everyone he encounters notices; they comment — sometimes obliquely, sometimes cruelly — and always with disapproval.  Except for his mother. For all her other flaws (and there are many), she knows who he is and loves him unconditionally.  

The writing is beautiful and relentless. Stuart fills his pages with lots of authentic Glaswegian dialect, and the agonizing and often violent details of the lives of the poor and marginalized. He shares both the humanity and the cruelties of the people at this time and in this place.  Shuggie is a fighter that you will come to adore, a faint bright spot in a lot of darkness.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian

To request a copy, click here.

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