Shuggie Bain: A Novel

by Douglas Stuart

Hardcover, 2020

Status

Available

Publication

Grove Press (2020), 448 pages

Description

"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"--… (more)

Media reviews

Shuggie Bain is set in this world of men run aground after the closure of mines, women sunk under the weight of drink, families living week to week on public assistance and disability benefits. It speaks in a Scottish English whose rhythms, even whose vocabulary, can be alien for American readers: misty with smirr and dusty with stour, its bruisers glaikit in their foolishness, gallus in their pride.... At its center is Agnes Bain, an imperious former beauty in a now-ratty mink whose disintegration Stuart observes lovingly but unsparingly. Shuggie is her youngest, her ward, her protector, and her target. He bobs in her beery wake, no more able to save her than his baby doll, Daphne.... Stuart’s project as a writer is in part about clearing space for tenderness among men, space for love.
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It is in many ways a harsh, bleak novel, for that decade was a harsh and bleak time in Glasgow, when the shipyards, engineering works and the coalfields on the city’s fringe were closing, and so many of the working-class were no longer working but living on benefits.... There is poverty, squalor and degradation here, much foul language and causal, sometimes brutal sex. What redeems the novel and makes it remarkable is that its central theme is love – a caring, responsible love.... The relationship between Agnes and Shuggie is beautifully, tenderly and understandingly done. Stuart doesn’t sentimentalise it and he hides nothing of the horrors of galloping alcoholism, but there is a gallantry about Agnes which commands respect and admiration, however reluctantly.
It is, then, a testament to Douglas Stuart’s talent that all this literary history—along with the tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens—can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel ... Stuart’s [has a] Grassic Gibbon–like ability to combine love and horror, and to give equal weight to both. Not only is Shuggie Bain dedicated to his mother, but in the acknowledgments he writes that 'I owe everything to the memories of my mother and her struggle'; he’s clearly determined to give all the contradictory aspects of that struggle their full due ... Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating ... Otherwise, the author is too generous—and, it would seem, too fond of his mother—for the central focus to lie anywhere but in the fierce, warm-hearted portrait of Agnes in all her maddening glory. As a result, this overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.
... his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart ... such a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality ... Agnes is drawn with extraordinary sympathy: she simply leaps from the page as she juggles motherhood, a violent and philandering husband and her own demons, drink foremost among them. She is troubled, lovable, vulnerable and resilient ... This is a deeply political novel, one about the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society ... It is brilliant on the shame of poverty and the small, necessary dignities that keep people going. It is heartbreakingly good on childhood and Shuggie’s growing sense of his otherness, of not being the same as the other boys on the estate ... Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.
With his exquisitely detailed debut novel, Douglas Stuart has given Glasgow something of what James Joyce gave to Dublin. Every city needs a book like Shuggie Bain, one where the powers of description are so strong you can almost smell the chip-fat and pub-smoke steaming from its pages, and hear the particular, localized slang ringing in your ears.... Agnes...is the real heroine of this story, so evocative and striking that she may be one of those characters you never forget. Stuart writes about Shuggie, a lonely, loving boy struggling with his sexuality, with skill. But the depiction pales in comparison to the sheer, knock-out force of what he managed to create with Agnes ... Shuggie Bain is full of people doing and saying awful things to one another all the time, but nobody really seems truly awful. Maybe this is what makes the novel so powerful and sad—it turns over the ugly side of humanity to find the softness and the beauty underneath.
Alcoholism brutally controls the destiny of a beautiful woman and her children in working-class Scotland.... How can love be so powerful and so helpless at the same time? Readers may get through the whole novel without breaking down—then read the first sentence of the acknowledgements and lose it. The emotional truth embodied here will crack you open. You will never forget Shuggie Bain. Scene by scene, this book is a masterpiece.
He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster — only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains. The book is long, more than 400 pages, but its length seems crucial to its overall effect. Like Agnes, we’re all doomed to our patterns. How often we repeat the same disastrous mistakes, make the same wrong turn again and again. And yet, like Shuggie, how often we rise, against all odds, to stumble forward once more. The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.

User reviews

LibraryThing member porte01
Five heart-wrenchingly beautiful stars.

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.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
It was painful yet necessary to read this heartrending novel. Shuggie and his mother, Agnes, try to survive the life lived by many in the public housing of Glasgow. Shuggie is "different" and Agnes is an alcoholic who is two different people, sober & drinking. I stayed up reading this until 4am one night, and 2am the next. The story made me ache, cry, chuckle, and yearn to help them, although their story is just one among many. Sparse work, not enough food, and close quarters make for anger, envy, brutality & worse. How did I make it through this tough, tough tale? I fell in love with Shuggie, his deep & unfailing love for his mother, and a hint of what could be. "My mother had a good year once." I also felt that this story was probably too close to reality to excuse myself from feeling the pain vicariously!… (more)
LibraryThing member richardderus
I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT FROM MY LOCAL LIBRARY VIA OVERDRIVE. USE THE LIBRARY, FOLKS! THEY NEED THE PATRONAGE.

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.
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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.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I didn't want to read Douglas Stuart's Booker Award-winning novel about growing up poor in and around Glasgow in the eighties, being raised by a single alcoholic mother. I thought it might end up being too much of a misery memoir, like Angela's Ashes, which it almost was. And I was wary of reading something that was emotionally manipulative, like A Little Life, which it wasn't.

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.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
Believe the hype! In turns harrowing and hilarious, heartwarming and heartbreaking. Like Milkman, a worthy Booker winner and an easy recommendation to all.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Clearly, Douglas Stuart is an amazing writer. His characters are broken yet loved. His descriptions are painful but beautiful. This heart-wrenching story of Shuggie Bain was heavily praised by critics which impacted my experience.
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
This isn't an easy book: four hundred pages devoted to a boy who does everything to help his alcoholic mother. It's emotionally manipulative, but it remains tremendously powerful. Never before have I read such a thorough exploration of addiction. The final scene Shuggie has with his mother was so gut wrenching and powerful--it's one that will stay with me for years.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beamis12
4.5 I knew it! When I was only fifty pages or so into the book, I had the feeling it was going to break my heart. It did. Glasgow in the eighties, many live in council housing, a day to day existence. These people are so messed up, poor and struggling, trying to find money, love, desperate beyond belief. Agnes turns to drink, anything to escape the mess she has made of her life. Her three children, try their best, but it is never enough. One leaves home as soon as she can, leaving her mother and two brothers far behind.

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.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
A heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a preadolescent boy left tending to an alcoholic mother while struggling with his own identity in poverty-stricken Glasgow. A remarkably good read.
LibraryThing member pdebolt
Shuggie Bain is abandoned at an early age by his father physically and his mother emotionally. His father leaves the family due to his wife's alcoholism, and Shuggie in mostly forgotten during his mother's frequent alcoholic hazes. He has an older half brother and half sister, who are a temporary constant until they, too, cannot bear their mother's lack of interest in their well being and leave Shuggie alone with his mother. The novel is set in Scotland in a community of abject poverty where miners' families live after the mine has closed. There is a pervasive desperation among those who remain, and alcohol is a constant companion, as is physical violence.

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.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Agnes Bain may be the most memorable drunk in literature. Living in Glasgow Scotland during the 1980’s, she leaves her first husband who seems to be a solid, respectable person with whom she had two children. She leaves him for a philandering taxi driver whose activities aren’t that much different than hers. With Shug Bain she has a third child, Shuggie. Shug moves the family from his mother-in-law’s apartment to god-forsaken council housing in an area where Maggie Thatcher has been closing the coal mines. Shug leaves Agnes and the three kids there and returns to Glasgow where he shacks up with his mistress. You really can’t blame him, Agnes is soused most of the time. The two older kids are nearly adult and manage to make their way forward, but poor little Shuggie, is stuck with his mom, the mean kids in the council housing who instantly pick up on his feminine ways and pick on him continually. Worth reading, this is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. Glasgow has lost its appeal after reading about their slums. This is not a book that makes you want to visit. If you want a cheerful middle-class book about Scotland read something by Alexander McCall Smith, although it seems like the residents around 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh aren’t that impressed by Glasgow either.… (more)
LibraryThing member runner56
Shuggie Bain is described as a masterpiece on the cover and I totally agree. 1990’s Glasgow and Shuggie (Hugh) Bain is worried about his mother Agnes. She is the victim of domestic abuse by a violent husband and upon his departure her life spirals out of control as alcohol strengthens its grip on an already very fragile woman. But Agnes can do no wrong in Shuggie’s eyes and his love for her is total, unquestioning, he can do little to help as she slips deeper and deeper into depression unable to stop her need for a daily drink or her hold on a fragile reality. A wonderful and inspiring read in a world where all hope has gone and the only way to survive is to blot out its existence….”She would pester Shuggie for a kiss as he came in the door from school. The boy could feel her warm tongue against his cheek like a piece of fatty stewed beef. On damp days Agnes made him rub the little woman’s hard feet. Years of drink had eaten her features, but they spread even thinner in grimacing pleasure as her sour little feet wriggled in her brown tight”..... Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize this book is simply wonderful and deserves any and every award.… (more)
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This book was the first for Douglas Stuart, a Scottish writer who lives in New York. He was in the fashion industry for 20 years so given this, "Shuggie Bain" is quite impressive. It tells the story of Shuggie Bain who deals with his addictive mother Agnes. It takes place in Glasgow during the 80's and early 90's. Stuart uses back and forth time shifts to tell the story. This is not as easy book but an important one in that it gives a painful portrait of addiction and its devastation on family and friends. We see Shuggie growing up in the poverty of Glasgow to a mother and father that both come together from previous marriages. Both have children from these marriages and you see the strains that come from all of the family relationships. Stuart also portrays the poverty and basic drinking and spousal abuse that is rampant throughout the environment that Shuggie grows up in. To complicate matters, Shuggie has to deal with his awareness that he is different from other boys and it turns out he is gay. Obviously, in Glasgow in the 80's in a strong Catholic world this is not a good spot to be in. Stuart portrays a bleak picture but underneath it you see the love and dedication that Shuggie has towards his mother despite her major shortcomings. Stuart also does a good job with his use of Scottish slang to give you a feel for the environment. This is not a happy story but from a social and historical perspective it is a worthwhile read. Stuart's success shows that not all good writers have to come from a major college MFA program.… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This is a coming of age novel of Shuggie, a young boy growing up "different" in the Glasgow slums, but there is also a great deal of focus on his mother Agnes, a troubled alcoholic young woman. It's bleak, there is frequently no hope, but boy do you come to care for Shuggie. This was a devastating portrayal of addiction and the effects it has on families, particularly the children of addicts.

Highly recommended.

4 stars
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LibraryThing member Bananaman
A real emotional and poignant book which is so well written. Shows how human frailties can have such a damaging effect on family life. Five stars is not enough.
LibraryThing member librarygeek33
Probably the most depressing book I ever read, but...I made it to the end. Kind of like not wanting to look at a bad accident but having to look at the same time. It's a testament to the author's skill that, despite the constant and unrelenting misery, I, in a way, understood the characters' pain and was really rooting for Shuggie and Agnes.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookchickdi
Scottish author Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain tells the story of a young boy’s life with his alcoholic mother. Shuggie lives with his mother, father, older sister, and brother in his mother’s parents’ home in Scotland.

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.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt said there was nothing worse than a poor Irish Catholic childhood. After finishing this book, I think I'd see him his Irish Catholic childhood and raise him a childhood of being poor with an alcoholic mother in Glasgow after Margaret Thatcher had closed all the coal mines.

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.
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LibraryThing member dhinden
A beautifully written, unrelentingly bleak autobiographical novel of Shuggie Bain's early years. We start and finish the novel with the sixteen-year-old Shuggie trying to make his way in the gritty part of Glasgow, working in a fast-food joint called Featherkillers. In between the opening and closing scenes, Shuggie staggers through a series of unhappy experiences as he deals with his hopelessly alcoholic mother and works out his sexual identity. His parents, Agnes and Shug, each in their own way, are selfish, miserable people and the reader roots for Shuggie to find some relief. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for something good to happen, but there is nothing beyond the faintest glimmering of hope until the very end of the story when Shuggie finds he first true friend, Leanne, a girl-woman suffering through the same life Shuggie seems primed to leave behind.

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.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
This is a grim story set in Glasgow of the 1980s about an abusive father, an alcoholic mother and three children being forced to live with the circumstances. I can't say I enjoyed it, it's not that kind of book, however, I was riveted for the entire time I was reading it. I can appreciate the work and emotion that obviously went into it given that Shuggie was based on the author's life. I hope it provided some catharsis. My main criticisms are that it was long and often the wording or phraseology was awkward causing me to pull up short. Of all the characters I liked Shuggie most, a good-hearted child who struggled with his sexual identity in a place where there is no tolerance for anyone different. It's not a book for everyone, but it is not maudlin, or self-pitying and the reader will forever remember Shuggie.… (more)
LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
Anyone whose family has been ravaged by addiction will instantly relate to the pain and challenges that face Shuggie, a multidimensional character who wins the hearts of readers. It’s bleak tale, skillfully blended with humor and veiled hope. Shuggie grapples with his mother’s alcohol addiction, the gritty aspects of living in a slum and the relentless torment of bullies. Some reviewers have aptly described this book as “neo-Dickensian.” My lone criticism – and perhaps it’s just me – is that the narrative seemed to lose a little “steam” about two-thirds of the way through. But as this gem of a debut novel wrapped up, it left me a mix of colliding emotions that will stay with me for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

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.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Hugh “Shuggie” Bain is the youngest son of Agnes Bain with her second husband, Shug. Agnes left her first husband, often referred to as “the Catholic,” believing she was making a better life for her first two children (Catherine and Alexander aka Leek). But Agnes’ life goes from bad to worse through a combination of poverty, relationship issues, and alcoholism. Shug, a taxi driver, works a night shift that affords him ample opportunity to bed down with women all over Glasgow. Agnes socializes with other women in their housing estate in evenings filled with penny-ante card games and lager. As Agnes’ alcohol dependency escalates, her children try to cope by falling into codependent roles in the family. Shuggie is much younger than his siblings and a social outcast at school, leaving him with no one to turn to for support.

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.
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LibraryThing member dooney
What an amazing novel. Yes, the story and the setting are bleak and often disturbing, and yet Douglas Stuart writes with obvious humanity, love and tenderness toward Glasgow and his characters. It seems to me this is very much a love story, not in the saccharine happily-ever after vein, but in the way love so often works, despite everything and despite all our failings. Stuart takes despair and hopelessness and finds the obvious love that his characters share, and in doing so creates a novel that somehow captures those scattered rays of light that drive us forward. A novel that is both heartbreaking and hopeful, capturing the humor and love that keep us going despite everything life throws in our way.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carol420
The description pretty much sets the page for the reader. The mother is a walking accident looking for somewhere to happen…or perhaps a junkyard because she has already “happened”. It’s without a doubt the most intense and excruciating book that I have ever read…but just impossible to stop. It also creates an amazingly intimate… compassionate… and heart wrenching portrait of addiction, courage and yes…love… even though pain is what the reader feels literally blazing from the pages. You will either love the book or hate the book…no one can feel indifferent to it. One thing I can almost guarantee …no matter how you feel about the writing…the subject or the characters… you will never forget Shuggie Bain.… (more)

Language

Original language

English

Barcode

9085
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