Literary Fiction

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

16 January 2021
Shuggie Bain Book Cover Shuggie Bain
Douglas Stuart
Literary Fiction
6 August 2020

A heart-wrenchingly moving first novel set in Glasgow during the Thatcher years, Shuggie Bain tells the story of a boy's doomed attempt to save his proud, alcoholic mother from her addiction.


Shuggie Bain is a beautifully written, poignant account of a Glaswegian family and their struggles through poverty, family breakdown, alcoholism, and community divisiveness. In a society where misery and despair circle like vultures, after years of economic assault from a Thatcher government on working-class people, the Bain family’s own story is one of profound hardship and an attempt to escape their embattled lives.

Shuggie Bain is a young boy, effeminate in nature, speaking and acting in a manner that regularly brings him into conflict with the other neighbourhood boys. He wants to be ‘normal’ and challenges himself to act normal, to be more like the others, but his nature and his love for his mother are things he can’t escape. While the book title may recognise Shuggie Bain as the main character, his mother Agnes is just as much an absorbing and predominant personality. Agnes is a damaged person, and in my opinion, is the real star of the story. Agnes has two children to a previous husband, Catherine and Leek. Shuggie is the son to her latest husband Shug Bain who is cruel, selfish, abusive, and spends his time chasing other women. Agnes holds onto the notion that she can dress and speak in a way that elevates her from those neighbours in the tenements and mining streets, but her alcohol addiction drags that image down.

“How she could no longer pretend that she was nothing like them, that she was better born and stuck only temporarily in their forgotten corner of misery. It was pride, not danger, that made her so angry.”

The scenes Agnes faces illustrates how hardship and humour are two sides of the same coin. With a dreary life and peculiar characters, humour is always present and ready to light the darkest moments.

Agnes, Shug, Catherine, Leek, and Shuggie all dream of escape from this life and one by one they manage to achieve some level of a new life – all except Agnes and Shuggie, who are thwarted by the millstone alcohol has on Agnes. All the characters offer a unique blend of traits that illustrate an exceptional complexity in human personalities and relationships. The dark humour which renowned in Glasgow is evident and is characteristically deployed at the most inopportune moments. The brilliant Scottish comedian Billy Connolly grew up in the tenements of Glasgow, working in the shipyards under tough conditions, with a sense of humour, a community where families lived on top of each other and shared a duty to support each other in daily needs. Douglas Stuart creates characters in Agnes and Shuggie who challenges that camaraderie, thinking they should be living loftier lifestyles, Agnes because she couldn’t accept how her life panned out, and Shuggie because he was devoted to his mother complied regardless. Douglas Stuart is from Glasgow and much of the background associated with Shuggie is drawn from personal experience and a reference to his own mother states that “My mother died very quietly of addiction one day.”

I would highly recommend this book especially for readers who enjoy deep character studies, a challenging background and human character observation insights that are off the charts. All brought to life with wonderful writing that has been widely recognised as it is the winner of the Booker Prize for 2020.

This was a Buddy Read with two amazing friends and reviewers, Ceecee and Beata. I loved the chat throughout the book, and it does really add depth to the experience of hearing and discussing other perspectives. Thank you so much, guys. I would like to thank Pan Macmillan, Picador, Grove Press and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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