Book Review of Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain is shortlisted for the Booker. It is a grim, gritty and moving read.

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.¬†

Somehow I just knew this is what Douglas Stuart would look like - strange!

Book Discussion Questions on Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain

  • If there is a villain in the story who is it and why?¬†
  • Alcholism is a complex disease so it is completely wrong to try and blame one person for Agnes’ demise. Despite this, as you read the text did you feel that any one person let Agnes¬†down more than others? If so who and when?
  • Eugene was a coward and a snob. Discuss.
  • Did you sympathise with Leek for hitting Eugene¬†after the evening Eugene and Agnes spent at the golf club restaurant?
  • Agnes always takes pride in her appearance and values good manners. Maintaining her dignity is important to her, yet she frequently fails to do so. Discuss how you feel about Agnes both as a mother, wife and woman.
  • Is Agnes a vicitim? If so what is she a victim of or to? Discuss.
  • Do you blame Catherine for leaving her family,¬†marrying young and emigrating to South Africa?
  • What do you think will happen to Shuggie?
  • What aspects of¬†Shuggie Bain¬†did you find the most shocking to read?
  • Shuggie’s love for his mother is of such an intensity that,¬†at times, it almost seems to slip into bathos. Discuss.
  • Shuggie is considered to be a¬†soft boy¬†by the other characters in the book. They¬†judge him by 1980s Glaswegian standards of mascuilinity. How would you describe Shuggie?
  • Shuggie has two female friends in the book. Discuss the impact that both of these girls have on Shuggie?¬†
  • To what extent has your understanding of alcohol dependency increased as a result of reading¬†Shuggie Bain?
  • What was the single most shocking incident in the Douglas Stuart’s¬†Shuggie Bain?
  • This Guardian review says “Stuart‚Äôs prose is baroque, rich in adjectives with a habit of pointing out what he‚Äôs just shown. These things are partly a matter of taste and training, but sometimes impatience with the heavy-handed prose interrupted my interest in Shuggie and Agnes.” What is your opinion of Stuart’s writing style? Did you find it at all heavy handed or repetitive?¬†
  • How could Agnes have been ‘saved’?¬†
  • What do you think will happen to¬†Shuggie Bain?¬†
  • Which character in¬†Shuggie Bain¬†do you have most empathy for and why?¬†
  • Shuggie Bain¬†is about working class people¬†surviving in a world of poverty and deprivation. Who do you think the likely readership of¬†Shuggie Bain¬†will be? Have a conversation about this.

Bookclub Questions on Shuggie Bain (if you haven't read the book!)

  • When Agnes moves house she thinks that she can reinvent herself and start again. Do you think it is possible to ever do this?¬†
  • Shuggie Bain’s homesexuality is explored as a minor theme throughout the story. Do you think it is easier to come out as gay today than it was in the 1980s?
  • Shuggie Bain¬†is already being heralded as a book that epitomizes the character of Glasgow and Scotland¬†in the same way that James Joyce is seen to represent Dublin and Ireland. What writers do you associate with particular places or times in history?
  • Shuggie Bain¬†is a book that begins by describing a point in time and then explores the journeys that the characters undergo to reach that point. Do you have¬† a particular narrative structure that you prefer than others? Discuss.
  • Shuggie Bain was clearly a neglected child yet none of his neighbours or family members reported the neglect¬†to social services. If you knew a child was caring for an alcoholic mother do you think you would intefere. Why or why not?

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. 

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