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Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart - Review

Thursday, May 20, 2021

I heard of Shuggie Bain when it won the Booker Prize last year, and immediately thought I would like to read it. Every now and then I like to read prize winners to see what all the buzz is about. Last time I did it was Girl, Woman, Other, which I ended up loving, and I feel the same way about this. I requested it from the library and it came in really quickly. I've been doing that a bit in the past few weeks, and I'm imoressed with how easy it is. The library staff are working really hard to make books accessible and safe for us. 

So! Shuggie Bain is the titular character, named Hugh after his dad, Big Shug. At the beginning of the novel Shuggies is fifteen and living by himself in a bedsit. He works in a supermarket. 

Next, we're back ten years previously when Shuggie is five and living in a tenement in Sighthill in Glasgow with his mother, father, brother, sister, grandma and grandad. His parents, Agnes and Shug, had an affair and left their first spouses for each other. Agnes is an alcoholic. Shug is abusive and generally an awful person. Shuggie was born and everyone is squashed into Lizzie and Wullie's three bedroomed flat. 

Shug then moves the family out to Pithead, an ex mining community west of Glasgow/in the west? I'm not sure exactly. They have a ground floor flat, but only two bedrooms, meaning the kids will still have to share a bedroom. Shug leaves the family, leaving Agnes for the dispatcher at his work, a taxi business. The family doesn't see him again, really. 

Catherine, the eldest child and only daughter, leaves the family to get married young, cutting all ties with her mother. Leek, the middle child, dreams of going to art college but ends up on a Youth Training Scheme instead. He and his mother are antagonistic towards each other for most of the book.

And then there's Shuggie. He is hopelessly devoted to his mother, despite how neglectful she is. She 'keep herself nice' even though she drinks all the money away, and is never seen without her glamourous clothes and make up, all bought on tick from the catalogue. Everyone agrees Shuggie is 'not right' in the head. He read as autistic to me, I have to say. I wanted him to succeed, but I also wanted him to be loved and safe, and mostly he was neither.

That isn't to say that Agnes is hard to like. She isn't. She's been let down by everyone in her life - including her parents. One of the most shocking parts of the book is something that happened between her parents that is never explained or put right, but which I found terrible. She fears everyone will leave her and so she drives them away before they have chance to hurt her. At one point she stops drinking and gets a job and I was rooting for her the whole time, but sadly a stupid man got in the way and she relapses. 

This is a whole saga of a book. It is so big in scope and the width of the storytelling is amazing. I loved it, I really did. Five out of five. 




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