Margaret Busby, 2020 chair of judges, editor, literary critic and former publisher, said:
‘Shuggie Bain is destined to be a classic — a moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values. The heart-wrenching story tells of the unconditional love between Agnes Bain — set on a descent into alcoholism by the tough circumstances life has dealt her — and her youngest son. Shuggie struggles with responsibilities beyond his years to save his mother from herself, at the same time as dealing with burgeoning feelings and questions about his own otherness. Gracefully and powerfully written, this is a novel that has impact because of its many emotional registers and its compassionately realised characters. The poetry in Douglas Stuart’s descriptions and the precision of his observations stand out: nothing is wasted.'
In the Début shortlist, this year’s Booker Prize winner is up against some “must-read” titles of the year. The authors tackled issues of racism, domestic slavery, prejudice, alcoholism and identity. Each of the shortlistees wrapped these complex themes in beautiful, sought-after packages and entertaining narratives, making it a tough category for this year’s judges.
There is much that’s lovely about this writing, with its control and precision, and the child’s-eye images of ice cream and ‘smoky fishes’. Like the bedroom, Agnes herself is something beautiful that’s on fire. (‘I am on fire. I do not burn,’ a man at an AA meeting tells her. ‘It’s Saint Agnes’s lament.’) They are saved by Shug, who puts out the fire with wet towels, burning himself in the process. He drags Shuggie from the room. When Agnes, unconscious on the bed, finally comes to, she asks him: ‘Where the fuck have you been?’
Shuggie Bain is heavily autobiographical: Stuart has spoken about his mother’s alcoholism and the gruelling experience of growing up as a gay man in 1980s Glasgow (Shuggie is gay, too, and the target of homophobic bullying). The relationship between mother and son, perhaps because it is so close to Stuart’s heart, has an overwhelming intensity of feeling. Reading the details of it is like taking repeated abdominal punches, one for each time Agnes hauls herself onto the wagon and tumbles back off again. For Shuggie, the devoted optimist, it is only late on that he realises, with some relief as well as melancholy, that his mother is stuck with this sickness. Nobody, he ponders, can ‘be made brand new’.
Stuart has described Shuggie Bain as “a love story to Glasgow” and, beneath the desperation, misery and stour, is a city teeming with life, and a cast of characters vivified by sharp dialogue, rich, dark humour and driven by the irrepressible instinct for human contact and, in a certain sense, transcendence. If it reads like a slice of social history, with its television meters and anti-Thatcher graffiti, then the struggles it describes remain all too contemporary. Unemployment is still endemic in some Glaswegian wards, while the city has some of the worst drug- and alcohol-related death statistics in Europe. In certain areas of Glasgow average life expectancy is around twenty-five years less than it is in parts of “privileged” London. We can fictionalize our failings, and reward those who do it well, but it doesn’t make them go away.
Stuart does tend to overegg the tragedy, and occasionally puts his own eloquence into the characters’ mouths. Would brutal Shug really think in phrases such as “diurnal masses”? Would a young boy reflect that “when [Agnes’s] belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise”? But don’t look too closely and you will be swept along by the emotional surface, and there is occasional blunt comedy to provide welcome relief.
One would guess that though this novel took years to write, it had been maturing in Stuart’s memory and imagination even longer. There are of course echoes of other Glasgow writers, Archie Hind, Alan Spence and James Kelman, but it is in no sense derivative. It’s a case of playing off and against the influence of others. There is humour here too, of a dark dry sort, and it’s a novel that deserves, and will surely often get, a second reading. It deserves better proof-reading too. The word “dout” (or “dowt”), meaning a cigarette-end, is repeatedly spelled “doubt” and when a hungover Agnes “retches,” we are told she “wretches.”
Like Taylor’s most memorable roles, this is a dysfunctional love story — an interdependence whose every attempt to thrive is poisoned whenever a drink is poured — but here, between a boy and his mother. Stuart’s debut stands out for its immersion into working-class Glaswegian life, but what makes his book a worthy contender for the Booker is his portrayal of their bond, together with all its perpetual damage.
The streets of Pithead, an older Shuggie reflects at the novel’s close, had his family “stuck like flies on paper, bounding them in on four sides by nothing”. And nothing is on perpetual offer in this trashed economy and rotting city – a land of kids with no schooling, and festering adults, and a woman whose end was written in her opening scene. In one of many deft touches of dialect, Stuart describes Glasgow as dreich: dismal, drab or bleak. And yet, throughout the story, tragedy is counterbalanced by light: the way Shuggie loves Agnes, with a love against hope, until events have run their course.
Reading Shuggie Bain entails a kind of archaeology, sifting through the rubble of the lives presented to find gems of consolation, brief sublime moments when the characters slip the bonds of their hardscrabble existence. That the book is never dismal or maudlin, notwithstanding its subject matter, is down to the buoyant life of its two principal characters, the heart and humanity with which they are described. Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.
Shuggie Bain comes from a deep understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent, showing a world rarely portrayed in literary fiction, and to that extent it’s admirable and important. I had qualms, about Shuggie’s precocity and particularly about the depiction of women, who are all scrawny or flabby, wearing too much makeup or not enough, and whose clothes are always wrong – “tight leggings” suggest loose morals while “baggy leggings” show slovenliness. Stuart’s prose is baroque, rich in adjectives with a habit of pointing out what he’s 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.
This is a panoramic portrait of both a family and a place, and Stuart steeps us fully in the grim decline of the Thatcher years: cheap booze, closed pits and lives lived on tick.
The rollercoaster misery of tragic Agnes’s alcoholism can be gruelling, and at more than 400 pages, this novel is longer than it needs to be. But it is also tender and unsentimental — a rare trick — and the Billy Elliot-ish character of Shuggie, when he does take the floor, leaps off the page.
He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster — only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains. The book is long, more than 400 pages, but its length seems crucial to its overall effect. Like Agnes, we’re all doomed to our patterns. How often we repeat the same disastrous mistakes, make the same wrong turn again and again. And yet, like Shuggie, how often we rise, against all odds, to stumble forward once more. The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.