“To have marked her sobriety in days was like watching a happy weekend bleed by: when you watched it, it was always too short. So he just stopped counting.”
“Ah think the more ye love someone the more they take the piss out of that. They will do less and less of what ye want and more and more of just what they fuckin’ please.”
Douglas Stuart’s debut novel SHUGGIE BAIN is a raw coming-of-age story about the relationship between a young boy and his alcoholic mother. Though at times agonizing, this book is not all pain. Love and compassion are present throughout the story even when the characters are at their worst.
Under Margaret Thatcher, Glasgow in the 1980s is in collapse: the coal mines and shipyards are closing and working-class families live in poverty. This is the world of the Bain family who are in a constant losing battle with the matriarch Agnes’s alcoholism. At the center of the story is Shuggie, the youngest Bain, who idolizes his tragic mother. Shuggie’s father is absent and his siblings have escaped, leaving him to care for Agnes as she drinks herself to death. At the same time, Shuggie is struggling to understand why everyone thinks he is “no right” just because he is effeminate and doesn’t act like other boys.
SHUGGIE BAIN is an immersive book. The use of Glasgowian dialect and phonetically written prose paired with vivid characters and settings, creates a story that I didn’t just read but became completely absorbed in. The descriptive details like prying open the meter for change, the grit of the coal mines, and the sour stench of fortified lager made the book come to life.
As a gay person, I saw myself in Shuggie’s struggle to be “like a real boy” and the confusion that everyone realized something about him before he even understood it himself. Though the book is named for Shuggie, at times it feels like Agnes’s story. That’s very fitting since addicts dominate the lives of those around them, forcing everything to be experienced through the lens of their addiction. Agnes and Shuggie are unforgettable characters that are rendered with deep intimacy and affection.
SHUGGIE BAIN left me absolutely gutted in the best way possible. My heart broke over and over. The care and detail put into this book cannot be faked, it clearly comes not only from Stuart’s own lived experiences but from his heart. The intimate and unflinching depiction of the corrosiveness of addiction and this troubled mother/son relationship is unlike any story I’ve read. SHUGGIE BAIN is without a doubt a masterpiece and modern classic!
- Title: Shuggie Bain
- Author: Douglas Stuart
- Published: February 11, 2020 (Grove Press)
- Genre: Friction, LGBT, Historical, Own Voice
- Booky Nooky Rating: * * * * *