In Douglas Stuart’s Booker-shortlisted debut, the fates of Agnes Bain and her children are held hostage by her alcoholism.
As she drinks herself to oblivion against the dreary backdrop of early 80s working-class Glasgow, interjecting bottles of vodka between cans of Special Brew lager, and wildly fluctuating between pushing her family away and desperately trying to hold onto them, Agnes’s clan gradually abandon her. First her abusive, cheating husband; then her daughter elopes; soon her eldest boy is plotting his escape; until all Agnes has left is her young, timid son — the titular Shuggie Bain.
Shuggie, despite all evidence to the contrary — his coming home from school to find his mother passed out; or in the company of a stranger; or pounding beers with their neighbours in the council estate; her volatile moods; her wasting child support allowance on booze — believes Agnes is capable of change. He perceives a glimmer of something nobody else can. He has hope. He believes her alcoholism doesn’t have to be the defining factor of her life; that there is a place beyond her struggle. But time and time again, Agnes is unable to break her addiction. And everybody suffers as a result.
Stuart’s depiction of alcoholism is raw, unvarnished and heartbreaking. The consequences of it are brutally accurate; there’s nothing melodramatic about its portrayal. “Shuggie Bain” is bleak and relentlessly tragic, but far less sensationalist than, say, Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” — a novel I adore, but is almost surrealistically traumatic. Everything about this is grounded and authentic. There are moments of barbarity, certainly; but it’s the smaller moments, Anges’s outbursts, her meltdowns into fits of rage aimed at her children, that are most distressing; the venom of her words is the kind of toxin that seeps into one’s soul and stays there, festering. As readers we hope and pray it can be exorcised.
“Shuggie Bain” is an absolute triumph, a masterclass portraiture of lives controlled by alcohol and poverty.
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 25th February 2020
Publisher: Pan Macmillan UK