There’s a moment in Shuggie Bain where the titular character is caught dancing as a child by a group of other kids in the mining town in which he lives. They start mocking him, and when he stops, his mother, Agnes, says to him, “If I were you, I would keep dancing.” As he starts dancing again he finds it difficult to get back into the swing of it, his feet are clumsy, the music doesn’t feel right, but he keeps on and on, until “it caught speed and he was flying again.” It’s a moment of deep understanding between him and his mother, whose struggle with alcoholism forms the spine of this exceptional novel. “When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world.”
Set in Glasgow in the early 1980s, Shuggie Bain is an astonishing achievement for a debut novel. A tough, often disturbing book that nevertheless has a beating heart at the centre of it, Douglas Stuart’s deep empathy for his characters never devolves into simplistic pity for their situation, nor does it ignore the darker side of life in poverty during the death of industrial Scotland under Thatcher.
Shuggie is one of three children living with their mother Agnes and her parents. Shuggie’s father, Big Shug, a taxi driver with his eyes on other women, and who, during an early flashback, we see assaulting Agnes, moves them to Sighthill, a mining town on the outskirts of Glasgow, before leaving them for good. It’s clear from the outset that other people don’t remain in Agnes’ orbit for long, her drinking driving people away one by one. Shuggie’s elder brother Leek is a talented artist who has postponed his start date at the School of Art to keep her from killing herself, and his sister Catherine is already making plans to leave for good.
To make things more difficult, Shuggie is considered “no right” in the community. His different nature leads to bullying and worse from the kids in the neighbourhood and at school, with one particular scene early on in the novel being one of the most upsetting, difficult pieces of prose I’ve come across for a long time.
At the centre of the novel is the relationship between Shuggie and Agnes, about the ways in which Shuggie tries to help his mother overcome, or just cope with her addiction. It’s a love story, but it’s also deeply sad. It’s also about a system and a community who let women down when they need it the most. Agnes is the only one to help a neighbour early on in the book, removing her own knickers and putting them on the woman to keep her dignified. Later, when her alcoholism has reached its worst, Shuggie is the only one left to help her. Men routinely show up to take advantage, only to leave when things get too difficult.
Stuart’s book is painful for sure, but that is not to say that it isn’t without levity. Shuggie Bain is funny, often laugh out loud so, when it needs to be. When Agnes is mistaken for a “working girl” by a nurse in a hospital, Shuggie replies to them, “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.”
When she selects an AA meeting, she picks one further away where she expects to find, “hopefully a better class of alcoholic.” Key to all of this is Stuart’s deep understanding of the characters. There are no cheap shots at the expense of Agnes, or anyone else. Instead, the humour comes from the characters themselves, from a place where laughter feels like it may well be the only thing stopping them from doing something terrible.
Also key to the success of the novel is its extraordinary sense of place. This is one of the best novels about 1980s working class life I have read, and one of the finest depictions of Glasgow too. Of the city, Stuart said in an interview, “I identify as Scottish, as a Glaswegian and working class. This is the city that formed me and it’s the city I love. In a way Shuggie is a love story to the city. It’s not a blind, always flattering love story, but it’s the truth. Anyone that sits down for ten years to write a book about a city, it has to come from a place of love.” There’s shades of authors like Joel Lane in here, about living in and exploring the post-industrial landscape of the country in that period.
In another author’s hands, this could just as easily have failed, but Shuggie Bain is a beautiful piece of fiction, delicate and tough in equal measure, and just about as perfect a debut as you’re likely to get.
Any Cop?: At the time of writing this review, Shuggie Bain has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. On the strength of the book, it damn well deserves to win.