THE PLOT: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a literary novel about a young boy growing up in 80’s Glasgow. Since he was a toddler, it’s been clear that Hugh (Shuggie) Bain is different from other children in his tower block. As he grows up, his love of dolls and dancing gets him labelled as a “poof” and a “girl”. But it’s his love for his mother, Agnes, that truly defines him. A once beautiful young woman, Agnes feels frustrated with how her life has turned out. With two marriages, three kids and no prospects, she relies on lager and vodka for company. When the family moves to a housing scheme on the outskirts of the city, they realise the once prosperous mining town is now a squalid den of people who cling to the dole to survive. And as Agnes slides into the depths of alcoholism, Shuggie desperately tries to help her survive.
RATING: Wow, just wow. This emotional novel had me in tears. It’s beautifully written and perfectly encapsulates the damage done to industrial towns by Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It is also a moving depiction of alcoholism and mental health struggles, as well as the desperate relationship between mother and son. Though I expected this to be a five-star read, I have docked half a star because it was a tad long and I felt my interest waning slightly due to the relentless sorrow. But that shouldn’t deter anyone because it is truly a masterpiece.
GOOD BITS: This is a beautiful, beautiful novel. The writing is incredible. The author manages to encapsulate a character or feeling using only a few words. The descriptions are visceral and the imagery of the cranes along the Clyde and the desolate mining town are burrowed into my heart. But, most of all, I feel like every single character is a real person, and I feel their pain. Agnes’ want, Shuggies’ love, Colleens’ spite, Shugs’ selfishness, Leeks’ wariness. The emotions of the characters are so real and they become your emotions too.
And, for those who have already read the book….
FUCK EUGENE! Just the memory of the scene with him and Leek brings tears to my eyes.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: A lot of people will disagree with me, but I’m going to put it out there… could this book have been shorter? Just asking the question. I mean, it’s very, very sad for a very, very long time. There is a huge chunk of the novel where it poignantly and aptly describes the monotony of alcoholism and slow decline of hope. But maybe, just maybe, the editor could’ve cut thirty pages of Pithead rather than hammering the reader with relentless (and quite same-y) sorrow… Or, maybe I just gave up on Agnes quite early on?
OVERALL: I’d recommend this novel to lovers of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank M’Court, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt or ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. All of these books are extremely moving portraits of a character’s interior and exterior suffering, and they are all extremely present and visceral. If you really want a book to tug at your heartstrings and stay with you, this is one to buy.