Book Review of Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a hard hitting story about poverty, alcoholism and isolation. Set in the early 1980s Shuggie Bain opens with a group of women sitting around a table playing cards for pin money. Agnes, daughter of Liz, is one of these women. She is devoted to her second husband Shug who treats her cruelly. The opening is brilliant and captures the tone and the mood of community. The bond between the women is strong and the toughness belies the depth of kinship and friendship bewteen the women.
As the story moves forward we quickly see the tougher and bleaker side of Glasgow living. Shug is both violent and a philanderer and seems to want to break Agnes completely. Shug moves the family, little Shuggie (his son), Catherine and Alexander (Leek) to a wasteland that was once a pit village. Here everyone is for themselves only. Violence is the norm, women are judged for dressing slovenly or as whores and the mood is callous and biting. Much of the story is set here and Agnes is the main character. She is both proud and a desperate alcoholic. (I suspect many readers have questioned Douglas Stuart why he actually labelled the book Shuggie Bain rather than Agnes Bain).
Agnes's descent into despair and alocholism, is a tool to explore how substance abuse can affect familial relationships. Shuggie, Agnes' youngest son, is witness to sights a small boy should never see. His love for his mother is unwavering as he wipes the vomit and bile and ignores both the bruises on his mother and the numerous men who visit the house.. Shuggie frequently goes hungry and promises to become 'normal' as often as Agnes promises to give up the drink. Acceptance of being homosexual is an important sub-theme in the text. Being gay was not readily accepted in the tough working class community of Glaswegians in the 80s.
The book, Shuggie Bain, is one about community and people. Politics constantly simmer under the surface as the author balks at the consquences Thatcherite policies have had on working class families. Despite this, little specific context is given. There are only a few references to fashion to specifically date the novel to the 80s. It is Shuggie we care about and it is because we care about Shuggie that we keep reading.
Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain doesn't have a great deal of hope in it. It is gritty realism well executed. It is a return to the vibe of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. but arguably with a sharper focus on women, friendship, relationships and sexuality.
Book Discussion Questions on Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain
Bookclub Questions on Shuggie Bain (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is a book I listened to rather than read. This meant that I invested more time with Shuggie than I would have done had I raced through the pages. In the first chapter we meet Shuggie post the events of the story so we have a fair idea throughout what the outcome will be regarding Shuggie's alcoholic mum, Agnes. If I'm honest, (despite my tendency for reading the ending of stories) I didn't like knowing where I was heading. I found it left me pretty bereft of hope or optimism for a better future. Despite this I loved the book. A friend told me that he actually groaned out loud when things take a bleak turn in the story and his wife had to check if he was ok. It takes a powerful book to do that. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is such a book.