Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I’ve only ever passed through Glasgow for a night, but Douglas Stuart’s Man Booker-winning novel took me right back there. The story starts in 1992. Shuggie (the Scottish nickname for Hugh) Bain, 16 years old, returns from his shift at the local deli to his bedsit in south Glasgow. The work is dull (“his mind had abandoned him”), his flat is so cold his skin turns blue and creeps invite him into their rooms for drinks and watch him shower through the keyhole of the shared bathroom. Yet he seems somehow, if not content, then free. You sense that however lousy his current accommodations, he’s escaped something worse. The rest of the novel explains this apparent contradiction.

We loop back to 1981, to a tenement high above Glasgow to the north (each of the novel’s five parts is titled for the suburb where Shuggie lives). Shuggie, five, lives with his mother Agnes, his Protestant father Shug, his two older siblings to Agnes’ first husband, and Agnes’ Catholic parents. It’s not exactly idyllic – money is tight, Agnes is an alcoholic, and the men are mostly “rotting into the settee for want of decent work” – but it’s home. That’s all upended when Shug moves them to housing scheme at an abandoned coal mine on the outskirts of the city. But Shug isn’t moving with them, he drops them off and then shacks up with another woman. Agnes’ despair and illness deepen, Shuggie’s brother and sister make plans to flee and he is left to try and keep his mother safe. The community is profoundly hopeless – the kids playing in the coal dust, the wives addicted to various substances and gossip, the jobless men hanging permanently around the only pub. Meanwhile Shuggie wrestles with his sexuality (“Liberace is moving in!” cry the local gossips when they first see him.)

In Agnes and her family, Stuart has created a family that you feel terribly every small triumph, every setback. And there are triumphs, moments of joy and hope among the glaur and ouse. Shuggie Bain is at its core a novel of emancipation. All of us have to at some point beak free from our parents, but fortunately a lot of us don’t have to do it in Shuggie’s circumstances. As a portrayal of illness and addiction, it is brutal. Agnes’ alcoholism destroys everything in its path, leaving her children neglected and herself open to regular assault from the men she brings home. Characters try to rationalise the terrifying illness. Shug suggests it’s thanks to her insatiable “want” for things, and certainly Agnes has never settled for less than she feels she deserves. But of course there’s also the everyday drudgery of poverty, the indignity of stretching out pitiful government benefits and meagre wages to make ends meet.

There’s little trust between the sexes, both suspect the other of incessant straying (correctly, in many cases). The women use what power they can, but it’s clear the power dynamic is one way, as evidenced by sexual violence so commonplace it is barely noted (and certainly not reported). Shuggie, belittled for his effeminacy (everyone says he’s “no right”), is sadly not immune to this abuse either.

This is all set against the backdrop of Glasgow, the smirr and dreich, the ever-present religious tension, which always threatens to become more than a joke. Driving around Glasgow in his taxi, Shug watches the city changing:

Glasgow was losing its purpose, and he could see it all clearly from behind the glass. He could feel it in his takings. He had heard them say that Thatcher didn’t want any honest workers any more; her future was technology and nuclear power and private health. Industrial days were over, and the bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springburn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs. Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

Stuart writes in propulsive sentences. He captures wonderfully the variously idioms of Glasgow, and Agnes and Shuggie’s Queen’s English, which marks them as pretentious and aspirational. I was most impressed by Stuart’s ability to write page-turning, cinematic scenes. Shuggie follows his brother Leek out into the abandoned coal mine to salvage scrap, which becomes a breathless rescue involving a Whitney Houston ballad, before finally coming to a terrible revelation. In such scenes, as in the whole novel, Stuart captures the swooping highs and devastating lows of life.

Gay rating: 4/5 for its depiction a boy coming to terms with his sexuality

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