Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
This is the heartbreaking story of Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his mother Agnes. He’s lonely, on the receiving end of much unpleasantness around his sexuality and has to cope with Agnes’ drinking. Set in the 1980’s of Thatcher’s Britain it shows a time of hardship, of the industrial decline of the heavy historic industry of the Clyde and it’s a bleak, deeply emotional story of a young boys growing up years.
This is an incredibly powerful, beautifully written story with Agnes central to the storytelling. She tries to rise above the circumstances she finds herself in and it’s a desperate struggle to hold her head high in the coal black sootiness of the Pithead harsh environment. She spirals further and further down into a pit not dissimilar to the derelict ones around them and the impact on the family is immense. Shuggie is fantastic, he’s clever and he’s a survivor. His love for Agnes is a thing of beauty, I love his occasional humour, there’s dysfunction in his circumstances, he struggles with the neighbourhood children’s taunts and worse, which combined with the grinding poverty it breaks your heart. Shug Bain, Shuggies father, has a great deal to answer for with his careless disregard of his son which I find shocking. The impact of Thatcher’s policies which are sorely felt in areas like Glasgow are extremely well depicted as the age old traditional industries go into free fall. The author paints some vivid pictures with his words and can evoke emotion from the reader too. The religious divisions of the city are depicted with clarity, this is a city where it matters if you are Catholic or Protestant. I’m not going to pretend this is an easy read, it’s dark, it feels very real as families like Shuggies struggle to hold their heads above water and live from one benefit payment to the next. You feel the despair of the brilliantly crafted characters and I feel nothing but admiration and love for Shuggie.
Overall, this is an amazing book and one I’ll definitely remember. It’s stark, vivid and compelling. Despite her neglect of Shuggie in her own way Agnes loves him deeply and she teaches him the importance of holding your head high and ‘Gie. It. Laldy’. A worthy winner of the Booker Prize 2020.
Ps. The Glasgow accent may be a challenge for some!!!