Book Review: Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain
They say that children love their mother regardless of the circumstances. I’d tend to disagree but little Shuggie Bain is one hell of an example. The debut novel by Douglas Stuart, which won the Booker Prize in 2020, accurately portraits what’s it like to grow up with an alcoholic mother in the filthy and poor suburbs of the 80's Glasgow. Why is it so realistic? Because Shuggie Bain is based on the personal experience of the writer and the memories of his mother and her struggle.
The paradox is that this Booker Prize winning novel might have never seen the light of the day, if not the intuitive eye of Peter Blackstock, a senior editor at Grove Atlantic. Rejected over 44 times on the both coasts of the Atlantic, Shuggie Bain was given a chance by this publisher who also noticed and acquired last year’s Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. “I felt extremely strongly about this book – deeply moved by the story and hugely impressed by Douglas’s writing,” Peter Blackstock told in one of his interviews. It just makes you wonder how the other editors could have missed this feeling, which oozes from every page of the novel.
The heartbreaking story resembling his own childhood wasn’t a one-time word flow for Douglas Stuart. He has been writing the book for ten years, revisiting the pages again and again. “It was a difficult process; it felt very necessary… I just wanted to let it out,” the writer told The Irish Times. The fact that the novel is written in a Glaswegian dialect strengthens the power of story-telling even more and facilitates descent into the miserable unemployed working-class surroundings of the Thatcher’s era. Although we firstly meet Shuggie in the early 1990s in a shabby bedsit on his own, quite soon we are spooled back to 1981 when he is still a little boy living with his mother, older sister and brother, his taxi-driver father and his grandparents in a tenement flat. Even at the age of five everybody is giving Shuggie a doubtful look and telling he’s “not right.” Not right meaning not really boyish in gender terms; this obvious otherness transforming into more serious bullying and exclusion during the years.
Although the novel bears Shuggie’s name, the main character of the story is Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, and her downhill alcohol-driven road to self-destruction. One of the prettiest girls, who once married a blank but decent man, falls for a handsome taxi-driver who unfortunately isn’t her salvation but her doom. The things get even worse when big Shug decides to move his family from his in-laws’ flat to a miner’s block on the outskirts of the city and subsequently move himself to his lover taxi dispatcher’s apartment. Left alone with the kids Agnes is robbed of her love and her dreams and substituted only with scarce weekly benefits and twelve tins of lager.
Her short moments of sobriety cannot be trusted and fear captures Shuggie every day after school just from a single thought of what awaits him at home. Because “to have marked her sobriety in days was like watching a happy weekend bleed by: when you watched it, it was always too short. So he just stopped counting.” Hopelessness screams from the very beginning of the novel, it whispers in your ear and waves from the pages to follow. It all is so realistically dark and contagiously violent that the wish to drag Shuggie up from this paper quagmire and run without looking back is no longer a fantasy.
The only thing that stops is love. Though Agnes’ destructive love for her cheating husband makes her sink deeper into her pernicious addiction, Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional and bright. He takes care of Agnes when she lies dead drunk, he searches the city to take her home from never-ending parties, he stays with her when everybody else abandons her, and he admires her shallow pride: “but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Every day with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of the 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.”
This care that Shuggie embraces his mother with is difficult to comprehend for the reader who has never had an alcoholic parent. You might even feel the rising inner indignation towards this heartbreaking manifestation of love. But it stays there till the inevitably approaching tragedy. The farewell is so gentle, so caressing, with proudly colored lips and the last kiss. Driven by love Shuggie succumbs to the grim destiny only to see her mother “at peace, softly carried away, deep in the drink.”