"Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's war on heavy industry has put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie's mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie's guiding light but a burden for his artistic brother and practical sister. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a "whoremaster" of a husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good-her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion's share of each week's benefits-all the family has to live on-on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes's older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to look after her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. He is meanwhile doing all he can to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that Shuggie is "no right," and now Agnes's addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her-even and especially her beloved Shuggie. A heartbreaking novel of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction"--
This story of the unforgettable Shuggie Bain and his wistful, compassionate, innocent love of a mother struggling with the ravages of addiction will tear you up but somehow also manage to lift your soul to a magical place.
The story is based in the bleakness of the tenements lining the underbelly of the poorest areas surrounding Glasgow, in the 80’s, and is populated with characters that ring so true you can almost see them, laying out their washing, taunting, gossiping, sometimes supporting but mostly banding together against each other with ice-pick cruelty in an effort to liven up their dismal lives.
Through the years we follow Agnes Bains, Shuggie’s mother, along with her men, her family, and her children as she battles the ravages of shame, poverty and alcoholism, throughout it all standing tall and with fierce pride, carefully cultivating her beauty and dreaming of better days, as she looks out for the man, the escape that will re-define the harshness of her reality to one of the loveliness which she believes to be her due.
Shuggie, her youngest child, a sweet and effeminate boy, worships her as he struggles with dreams of his own about becoming a “real boy”, one who is “normal” and fits in with the world around him. “A soft boy in a hard world”, he works tirelessly to care for his mother as she descends into a world where she can no longer care for him, or herself.
Though, at times the story is so tinged with despair that it’s hard to read, at the same time, it is stunningly beautiful and Shuggie is so sweet, so endearing, that it is hard not to let him into your heart. And strangely enough, i found the same thing to be true of his mother, Agnes.
I could not recommend this one more strongly.
Many thanks to NetGalley, the publisher Grove-Atlantic, and the author for an advance review digital copy of this book.
If you don't know already, the 2020 Booker Prize was presented to Author Stuart for this fictionalized account of growing up gay in a deeply dysfunctional, working class family. His story is not unique, though his voice is; he is a survivor of times and tides most of us who read novels are apart from, unacquainted with. A taste for grit lit, an ear for the music of Scottish voices, and a love for searingly honest, uncompromising, and unflinching life-fictions will be sated and elated by this read.
A few of the more beautiful lines from Shuggie's point of view as a teen:
He found his long, thick moustache and sat absent-mindedly stroking it, like a favourite pet. Under it his spare chin wobbled.
The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs.The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs.
Shuggie Bain is the youngest child of an alcoholic mother who constantly sought excitement and conflict. By the time he's in school, his mother has lost her second husband and her oldest daughter and is living in the housing adjacent to a closed coal mine. It's not a great environment, even less so for a boy who doesn't know how to blend in with the rough, active boys in his community. Shuggie clings desperately to his mother, his one bit of stability, even as she does her best to drink herself to death.
This isn't a cheerful book, although there were enough points of hope; the promise in the opening chapter that Shuggie survives, a tentative friendship with another child of an alcoholic, his brother's attempts to care for him, for the book to not sink under the weight of the unhappiness and desperation.
This was a safe and solid choice for the Booker Prize being a traditionally-structured and told story about a specific time and place in British history. It will be interesting to see where Stuart goes from here as a writer.
It is Shuggie though who breaks my heart and to s certain extent his older brother Leek. They both have responsibilities they should not have at their age. Shuggie though has an additional struggle, as he doesn't fit in anywhere. His sexual orientation makes him stand out, he walks different, doesn't like sports. Ultimately he is picked on and bullied. He also feels if his mother just realized how much he love her, she would stop drinking.
This story feels do very real. Children that grow up in households where ones parent is an alcoholic, will recognize the authenticity of the way the children act. How they often blame themselves, take on responsibilities way too early. Believe me I know. I think that is why this book hit me so hard.
A terrific book, full of emotion and the struggles of a parent who can't face reality. A parent who struggles with a fearsome addiction. Yet, reading this one can't help but feel for her too.
ARC from Netgalley.
Shuggie fails to fit into the rough-and-tumble group of children. He is visibly effeminate, and an easy target for the bullies at school and in the neighborhood. A glimpse into Shuggie's life is heartbreaking.
Shuggie’s mom Agnes left her first husband for her handsome second husband. She soon tires of his cheating, and he tires of her alcoholism. He moves the family to a remote, impoverished neighborhood into a home of their own.
The neighborhood women take an instant dislike to Agnes, with her stylish clothes and good looks. Agnes looks down on them as well. Shuggie’s dad stays away for longer and longer at a time until he finally leaves for good, and Agnes falls deeper into her depression and alcoholism. She spends the money the government gives her for food on alcohol.
Shuggie’s sister leaves to get married as soon as she can, and Agnes throws out his older brother in a fit of anger. Young Shuggie is the only one left to care for his mother and himself.
Shuggie Bain is a lyrical, emotional portrait of a young boy whose life is defined by his mother’s alcoholism. The writing is powerful and beautiful, and Stuart based his book in part on his own life. It also gives the reader a look at how Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies affected everyday people. It deservedly won the prestigious 2020 Booker Prize for fiction.
Shuggie Bain is the youngest child of his beautiful mother Agnes who is also an alcoholic. Agnes had been married to a decent and loving man who made the mistake of both being a Roman Catholic and being dull. Agnes wanted a little excitement and so ran off with Shuggie's father, a philandering taxi driver, who eventually tires of her and leaes her for another woman.
Agnes longs for respectability, dresses to the nines, vows to turn over a new leaf and yet, inevitably decides she just "one wee drink ." Agnes' older children make their escape - hiss sister to a marriage and emigration to South Africa and his brother to his own flat and jobs in the building trades. Shuggie, who just wants to "be normal" tries to take care of his mother, but all too often is just her pawn as she drinks away her benefits money and breaks into the gas meter to steal coins to buy more lager.
This is a heartbreaking story of poverty, addiction and love and it certainly deserves its Book Prize.
This is an episodic novel. In one memorable chapter Agnes’ drinking buddy, Genty, comes for some freebies under the guise of a friendly visit. You want Agnes to just say no, but she doesn’t have a chance. Does Shuggie? Somehow, Douglas Stuart manages to make this episode laugh-out-loud funny in addition to everything else that it is.
Genty, Agnes, Shug and the Greek chorus of neighboring women from the Pit Scheme are worthy of Dickens, and the material world, without much material and with no deep values, friendships or love to speak of, are a vision of Hell where the fires have cooled to slag.
The last two chapters, where first Shuggie watches his mother die and then he and Leanne minister to Leanne’s mother on the streets of Glasgow, are both heartbreaking and hopeful. In the final scene, Shuggie smiles and laughs for what seems like the first time in the entire book.
I was struck by how the image of the waterman collecting bodies on the Clyde at the end of this novel echoes the scene on the Thames at the beginning of Our Mutual Friend; how Stuart’s image of children tending to their broken parents channels Jenny Wren’s sad parenting of her father in that earlier novel; and how Dickens’ Dust Mountain reappears here as the Black Mountain of Slag.
To the extent that this story is an autobiographical one, as one presumes that it is, we know that Shuggie’s new, independent life is the beginning of much better things to come. This book has the feeling of the first installment of a lifelong project where readers will follow the fictionalized arc of the author’s life. The next installment remains to be written but already has been lived; the rest remains to be seen. I am reminded that there are many installments of this story I will not get to read. That this is a fictionalized account of a real life in progress, or that it might not be, takes the work to another level. It’s the glimmer of better things to come, really the sureness of better things ahead, that redeems this beautiful but otherwise bleak portrait and fills the reader, more than it does the young boy making his way in a cold world, with great expectations for what lies ahead.
Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.
It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.
Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.
Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.
An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.
Over the course of the novel Shuggie grows from little boy to teenager. The family experiences several major shifts, driven largely by Agnes’ mental and physical state. Periods of hope are inevitably shattered. This is not a happy story. And yet, Shuggie has a certain resilience that keeps him going, even when things get as bad as they could possibly get. It is clear from the beginning that Shuggie will need to find his own way in life with almost no safety net. It is quite moving to watch him grow up and overcome incredible obstacles, all the more so knowing much of this novel is drawn from the author’s life experience. This is a memorable novel, extremely well-written and a superb choice for the 2020 Man Booker Prize.