2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is the most empathic and convincing portrayal of an alcoholic I’ve read. It’s the 1980s and Agnes Bain and her three children live in utter misery in the most deprived area of Glasgow. Shug, Agnes philandering husband, has moved on. Soon the older children start looking for the exit too until it’s only Shuggie and Agnes left. It’s the indestructible love between the two of them that carries this touching novel. This year’s first must read.
Shuggie Bain is loosely based on Stuart’s own childhood; the rawness with which he portrays alcoholism and the effect on those close testifies to that. We feel what Shuggie feels: pity, despair, occasional hope, anger, embarrassment and, most of all, a boundless love.
Agnes is a complex person, haughty and confrontational but also immensely fragile, hurt and lonely. A renown beauty, she clings to respectability through impeccable dressing and perfect grooming. As she sinks further into alcoholism, her vain attempts at keeping up appearances becomes more and more pathetic.
The matted mink coat gave her an air of superiority, and her black strappy heels clacked out a slurred beat on the long marble hallway. The rubber tip had worn away from around the right heel, and although she had coloured the shoe in with an old black bingo marker, the sharp metal nail scraped the floor with the screech of hard times.
But most of all, our sympathy is with Shuggie as he attempts to save his mum, scramble to feed himself and tries to find out why he’s so different from the other boys. Stuart is superb at describing the poverty and misery of the abandoned mining area of Glasgow where Agnes and Shuggie live. Thatcher’s policies loom in the background, unemployment is rife, a sense of hopelessness prevails.
Bad-news fatigued, as I suspect you might be too, I was wary about picking up this book. As it turned out, the love that radiates through the misery was enough to get me hooked and win me over. Very much recommended.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador, 448 pages.