by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have 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 him and his siblings. 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 philandering taxi-driver 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 care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.
A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of �douard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.
“Shuggie Bain” is multi award winning and it’s highly praised by almost everyone so I’m so sorry to report that I didn’t get on with it! Don’t hate me please…
“Shuggie Bain” tells a dark, gritty story set in Margaret Thatcher’s Glasgow during the 80s and 90s. The story follows Shuggie and his mother Agnes. Agnes is an alcoholic and I’d say that the story is more about her than her son.
I don’t want to say that I didn’t like this book because it’s sad and depressing, as that’s not quite it. I’ve thought quite a lot about why I didn’t get on with this book and I think it’s more to do with the form than the content. In the first few chapters, I was fully immersed in the story and was intrigued at where things were going. I truly appreciate the story and the themes it covered, even though they were extremely heavy, but after those initial chapters, my attention waned and I really struggled to get in to it.
I found the book overall to be very repetitive and, whilst I know that this kind of cycle is reality for some people, I didn’t find it made for a particularly engaging read and I struggled to find the motivation to stick with it because I just didn’t want to read about abuse again and again.
On top of that, the dialogue is written in the Glaswegian accent and I found that this made the read even more slow going. At one point I wondered if maybe this was causing some of my struggle, so I did actually switch over to the audiobook for a little bit. Unfortunately I didn’t find it made much difference for me as the narration was slow and extremely lengthy.
Whilst all this does sound extremely negative, there were moments in the book that I liked and felt were particularly poignant and I did finish it, which has to be a good sign! I probably wouldn’t rush to recommend this based on my own experience, but appreciate that I’m in the minority with my opinion of this one!
Overall rating: Although I know I’m in the minority, I’m afraid that for me, “Shuggie Bain” wasn’t a hit. There were moments that I liked but they were few and far between and I struggled to engage with this very sad and bleak story. This was a 2 star read for me.