Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Imagine a mining town and everything covered in shades of coal, from the people to the buildings to the sky and every single surface. That’s the backdrop — both physically and mentally — to Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain.
The greyness grows from dark themes: poverty, addiction and religious divides, set in the Glasgow of the Eighties and Nineties, the reputation of which the city is now ridding itself of. The eponymous Shuggie is the youngest of three and the product of Agnes’s adventure-seeking marriage to taxi driver Shug for whom she abandons “the Catholic”, her boringly proper first husband. Shug, however, turns out to be a philanderer, and as Agnes is no longer enough for him and his taxi takes him to other women more and more often, he abandons his family into a mining town decimated by Thatcherism.
Agnes copes by drinking — benefit money disappears on drink rather than food and cans of lager are hidden away under the sink — and her alcoholism drives her older children, Catherine and Leek, to escape as soon as they can. She is left with loyal Shuggie who is unquestioningly convinced that he can cure his mother of her devils. At the same time, outside the home, he struggles with being a misfit in society; prim, poshly accented and playing with dolls, he is regularly beaten up and branded a ‘poofter’.
Stuart does not let the reader off lightly. Glimpses of hope are tarred with inevitable failures as if relapses and misery are pre-determined, and scenes of kindness turn into disappointment of yet another failed attempt at saving Agnes.
All the bleakness could easily veer into clichés, but it does not. Agnes’s alcoholism is tackled with skill in all its brutality, from coughing up bile to blackouts and the deep despair for another drink, accompanied by the shakes of sobering up. Stuart does not explain or make excuses. The characters are all flawed and their morality is deliciously murky. We watch Catherine and Leek struggle and leave, understanding their need to flee, yet asking why no one reaches out to Shuggie. There is Eugene, one of Agnes’s true loves, who is a sharp study of the prejudices and misunderstandings alcoholics will encounter, despite the best efforts, and even love, of those around them. Shuggie himself is a masterpiece of a character you don’t quite know what to think of: he is spectacularly annoying, charmingly unique and heart-breakingly devoted all in one.
What I was left asking for from Shuggie Bain was more — and not just in the sense of finishing a good book and wanting it to go on. There is an ever so slight sense of the stories not fully developing and a touch of stagnation to the narrative. Reading Shuggie Bain is to float in the ethereal bleakness of closed coal mines, and in many ways that is the strength of book, but it’s also in want of peaks and troughs to the plot. As it is, it feels at times like Stuart is too duty-bound to his chosen themes to break the patterns.
The absences are not major flaws, however, and Shuggie Bain does not leave the reader in peace in its intensity. It is an excruciating read in all its greyness, but one definitely worth the pain and ploughing through the darkness.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (Picador, 2020). 978-1529019278, 448pp., hardback.