A review of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain
By Ella van Driel
This is the first sentence that greets you in Douglas Stuart’s first novel Shuggie Bain. The novel starts with “Shuggie” Bain living alone in a dingy bedsit in Glasgow in 1992. Sweet and short, this first sentence feels like a curt description of life for the novel’s characters. It is a flat world, only broken up by the tenements, drink, death, and emotional destruction. However, it is not a story without hope.
Shuggie Bain is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, a surprising feat for a debut novel. Illustrating the negative influences of Thatcherism, it follows the Bain family, their struggles with money, housing, booze, and their mutual co-dependency in 1980s Scotland.
Shuggie’s mother Agnes and his father Big Shug are by far one of the most dysfunctional relationships I have ever seen grace the page. Big Shug is physically and emotionally violent, but pretends it is because of Agnes’ alcoholism. But actually, he gains some sick sort of satisfaction from having control over her in every aspect. Agnes is an insufferable drunk but is supposedly only so because she is too dependent on Shug’s love, or one could argue love from men in general. Her self-worth and her mental stability depend on the approval of the men around her.
They are horrible, real, and human.
Their children, Catherine, Alexander (Leek), and Shuggie are terrified of their mother, even during times of sobriety. The effect of a parent’s addiction is made crystal clear, and the watchfulness that arises in these children is ever-present.
Sex, booze, violence, assault and societal exclusion are pivotal to their shared narratives. Shuggie’s deeper alienation due to his “posh” character, unconventional upbringing, and sexual orientation stands out beautifully, and tragically, from the others’.
Despite the glumness of their lives, there is a glimmering hope left in Shuggie. The hope that Agnes will become better, and that he himself will eventually fit in. Even as Agnes can’t accept what she has become because of her addictions, she encourages Shuggie to hope for a better life, for a better future. At the end of the novel, I was not filled with as much sadness and dread for what would be waiting for Shuggie as I was earlier in the book, despite all the worst things having already happened by then.
For the characters in Shuggie Bain, the quality of life is not only determined by where they live in Glasgow, but how much they are able to adapt, fit in and survive. Despite their best efforts, Shuggie and Agnes are terribly bad at fitting in, and when they do fit in it is only for a short moment before their masks are ripped off. Shuggie especially is quickly sniffed out by his peers. They see he is “no right”, but he can’t tell what it is that makes it so easy for them to determine that. His otherness is plain to everyone in the narrative, but his mother never treats him as “no right”, so he clings to her for love and comfort.
Reading this novel as a woman, it is painfully obvious that this novel was written by a man. While Agnes’ narrative is present throughout most of the book, simple things like periods and menopause are never on her mind despite sex being explicit everywhere. Something else that stood out were the descriptions of attraction to men that women experience. They all like dirty men who are controlling, who like to eat a lot, and who assert their dominance in demeaning ways. Apparently, nothing is sexier. Perhaps this could be true for some women at that time, but it feels very alien to read in 2020.
Nonetheless, and evident from how unusual it is to have a debut novel on the Booker shortlist, Shuggie Bain’s artistic merit is unquestionable.
Brilliant descriptions of all people and places make the novel somehow extremely visually stimulating. Sentences like “bosomy sofa of a woman”, “as economical with his emotions as he was spare in build”, and “The girl was spitting like a cat, her long hair making a stream of frothing lemonade” are both unconventional and poetic.
Stuart’s writing makes the story feel all the more alive with these entertaining descriptions. He avoids gilding the beautiful. Instead, he showcases how this glum reality is somehow wondrous and beautiful in itself, in the most horrifying but also comforting way possible.
The novel switches seamlessly between characters’ points of view, without causing trouble to understand who is thinking what. The point of view changes even within a paragraph and still flows beautifully.
Artistic as it may be, it is vulgar and shocking too. Sex, suicide, and abuse are only but a few topics that might raise some questions. This explicit narrative could hinder it in its race to win the Booker Prize, as it might become more controversial when it gains more mainstream appraisal. However, I doubt it could make a bigger scandal than Atwood and Evaristo sharing the Booker in 2019.
Shuggie Bain opens up the age-old discussion once more: when do we consider a narrative too explicit to be allowed to win a literary prize? I believe this directness and the inability to skip over the more difficult parts make the novel stronger, make it more artistic, in fact, and all the more interesting to examine closely. It is explicit but not pornographic. It is a great Scottish narrative, and its discussion of addiction, poverty, and sexual assault does suit the current political climate in the UK.
While I do not believe that Shuggie Bain will win the Booker Prize due to its more controversial nature, I do believe that this might become an important narrative that reignites discussion of the realities of Thatcherism, addiction, and homosexuality in the Glaswegian communities during the 1980s. It might not win, but it would deserve the prize wholeheartedly if it did.
Stuart has found a way to turn the grim life of these characters, in part influenced by his own experiences, into a narrative so full of life that you could return to it endlessly and find a new piece of surprise and wonder every time.
Ella van Driel is a New Zealand/Dutch writer working on her M.A. focused on literature and publication at Utrecht University. Ella is an editor and website designer for RevUU. Her interests are in metafiction and the contextual relevance of literary works, and she has a love for incorporating her interest in historical fiction and feminist works in her writing.
Author image by Lee Russell
Stuart, Douglas. Shuggie Bain. Picador, 2019.