Shuggie wants to be a hairdresser. He promised himself that at sixteen he would go to hair dressing college. And yet instead he finds himself working at a supermarket named Killfeathers. The reader also finds him alone and living in a tiny apartment. We are not privy as to why he is alone. or where his parents are. One thing is for certain though, he is lonely and poor.
Later he finds himself staring in the mirror at his reflection. Something is wrong. His reflection is not how real boys are supposed to be. He stares but can find nothing masculine staring back.
The second chapter will leap back eleven years in time and introduce us to Agnes Bain. She feels a failure living with her husband and three children all crammed into her mother’s flat like sardines in a tin. Agnes is Shuggie’s mother. His father, Shug, is a taxi-driver with roaming eyes and roaming hands, always looking for another woman to add to the list as he drives around in his taxi. The writing and language, beautiful as Shug, talks, most times begrudgingly, to his passengers.
Shug would have to be blind not to notice the change in the city under Thatcher as he drives around Glasgow. There is a cloud of angst and melancholy attached to the clients he picks up. He hears it in his passenger’s voices. Jobs are disappearing before the inhabitant’s eyes as Thatcher shuts down the mines.
Agnes is wise to Shug’s cheating ways, and she often finds herself ruminating about the days before she was married and had the children. Misses the way men would follow her with their eyes. At times she feels trapped in the little apartment, with Shuggie her key to making things bearable. A talisman used to escape, if not physically, then mentally.
We realize just how troubled Agnes is when she lights the curtains on fire with her cigarette just as Shug arrives home for his tea break one night. When Agnes drinks, she becomes bitter, angry, and violent.
When the family eventually move out and into their own home. Agnes is stunned as she notices that Shug’s suitcases are not unpacked. Realization dawns that he is not moving in with them.
Shug has had enough of Agnes’s drinking, which paradoxically he causes.
As time goes on Agnes’ drinking gets worse and the children tiptoe around their mother as if the floor around her is scattered with shattered glass.
The deep melancholy seeps into your very bones as you read this novel. There is no respite from the poverty, alcoholism, and abuse with this narrative. The novel itself seems like a quagmire in which any time Agnes nearly makes it out, she is caught, trapped, and sucked back in again. However, it is brilliantly written. Your heart will break for most of the characters and their interminable struggle, most especially Agnes and Shuggie.
Shuggie is the one who must be present and watch his mother slowly splinter apart, as she will do anything to procure more alcohol. Shuggie starves as Agnes uses the food rations for drink. And yet he is Agnes’ lifeline, a lifeline, a tether, that unwinds under the strain a little more each day.
So much of this novel is about sacrifice as well. When you have nothing and are living below the poverty line, sacrifice is the only way to get things done. Both boys sacrifice much to take care of their mother. Leek sacrifices a position at an art school to stay and help his younger brother who he fears must lose his effeminate way or be broken in this world of intolerance.
I think that Stuart has done an amazing job of condensing the terrible conditions and situation that Scotland faced during this era, down into the Bain family. The Bain family depicts, and is a representation of the country, scaled down to the most personal level. Brilliant.
This is an incredible debut, one of the best I have read 5 Stars.
Douglas Stuart is a Scottish - American author. His debut novel, Shuggie Bain, is longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction, and for the Center For Fiction First Novel Prize. He is currently at work on his second novel.
His short story, Found Wanting, was published by The New Yorker magazine. His writing on Gender, Class and Anxiety was featured on Lit Hub.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, after receiving his MA from the Royal College of Art in London, he has lived and worked in New York City.
Link here to a great article in The Scotsman with Stuart talking about the novel - https://www.scotsman.com/must-read/interview-douglas-stuart-scottish-debut-novelist-makes-booker-longlist-shuggie-bain-2949630