I recently finished this brilliant hard-hitting debut novel by Douglas Stuart.
Set in Glasgow, Shuggie Bain begins and ends in the early 90s, with the focus being on one character, Shuggie, who was then in his teens. In between, the book documents his childhood growing up in the 80s in and around the area of Glasgow in different settings and estates.
Despite not being familiar with the area, I have visited Glasgow for work purposes briefly and could picture some of the city-based scenes. However, even without any prior knowledge, the quality of the writing enabled me to see, smell, and hear it all. It touched at all the senses, even taste at times. The description of the settings summoned my imagination and transported me to the bleak surroundings, the pit dust and griminess of the children.
Shuggie is the central character and whom which I imagine would evoke the most sympathy from readers. I found I was torn between wanting to take him away from his mother (Agnes) and keep him safe from her associations, but knowing that it was unlikely he would ‘thrive’ anywhere else due to their compelling bond.
Shuggie is not the only child, having an older half sister and half brother (Leek), although he is the most loyal to Agnes until the end – so well described throughout the book – in some shocking circumstances. I was intrigued by the subtlety of the relationship between the brothers and found myself increasingly frustrated by the missed opportunities of Leek.
The sheer loneliness of Shuggie throughout his school years is hard to imagine. The sweetness and naivety of his character is mixed with his maturity and responsibility that he carries – a necessity in order to be able to look after himself in the ‘absence’ of his mother.
As the book progressed, I found my sympathies swaying more toward Agnes’ plight, her obvious battle with what she was – an alcoholic – being unable to feed her children as a result of her addiction. The insight into her back story, and that of her mother, highlighted what seemed to be the normalisation of abuse of women by their partners and what little power women had in their poverty-stricken settings.
A humorous, sometimes tragic, thread throughout the story was Agnes’s self-proposed superiority to her neighbours, wherever she moved to; never wanting to be considered as poor or as dirty as them, the conscious effort to look her best when leaving the house and for her children to always be clean. The short lived periods of sobriety and stability in her behaviour proved less entertaining reading, although of course as a reader I wanted this peace for the sake of Shuggie.
Despite the difficult subject matter of abuse, poverty and addiction, the writing and development of the characters is such that it left me with a sense of love and warmth, amongst the sadness.
I would describe it as a beautiful book, despite the darkness.