Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

10 months ago Shaili Desai 0

Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel which went on to win the The 2020 Booker Prize. Stuart is a fashion designer who started writing fiction on the side. With its frank portrayal of alcoholism, poverty and childhood bullying, the novel has won many accolades.

Douglas Stuart shows a mirror into 1980s Glasgow, set in the Thatcher era which affected various classes of society, especially the working class with rising unemployment and poverty. The dialect is authentically Glaswegian as he pores the struggles of the working class on to paper – more so the struggles of the women in the working class. It is the women who are most affected, more so because of the emotional and economic dependence on their useless men. They find ways to keep the house running and lead a decent life, and yet handicapped by the helplessness of not being able to hold onto their straying unemployed men. This is what ultimately leads to the breakdown – not poverty.

Shuggie Bain, the titular character in the book is a wonderful sketch – he’s a gay kid with an alcoholic mother and a negligent, uncaring father. He is mostly ignored by his siblings who seek to escape their mother. He’s alone and constantly bullied for not being ‘normal’. He lives in poverty, often taking on the role of caretaker to his mother. And yet, he is wonderfully endearing – a child whose innocence and love for his mother is totally unaffected by the worst circumstances.

Agnes Bain is a proud woman – motivated only by drink and the constant keeping of appearances. She stumbles and falls again, making her way to the end of the book like a veritable drunk that she is. She uses all the state benefits towards alcohol and yet, takes pride in a clean house (when she is sober). She hates her neighbour and yet tries to pick her up, as she reels from a mental breakdown. Shuggie is clearly her favourite child – it is deeply affecting to see her alcoholism destroy the chances of Shuggie ever having a normal childhood. And while she sinks further, Shuggies starts to come of age.

The narrative is frank and the bleak events do not seem monstrous – it tells it like it is, without frills and icing of emotion of any kind. As a reader, it is only in a disconnected way that you empathise with Agnes and the things that happen to her – whether it be drunken rape, marital abuse and being taken advantage of by men and women alike. The high and lows of Agnes Bain are not agonising enough to pity her for Agnes would never want your pity. She still emerges strong even though she is weak and that I feel is the strength of the novel. But what is agonising is the love that Shuggie feels for her. It is endless and bleak.

Shuggie Bain deeply shows the love that a child can feel for their parent – irrespective of the nature of parenting – good, bad or worse. It is agonising how Shuggie refuses to believe the worst of Agnes and still hopes of a time when she would recover. People can be broken, selfish, insecure, pathetic, destitute and yet, their children will always love them, even if they profess to hate them – irrespective of the treatment received. Such is the despair of the filial bond.

About the book: Shuggie Bain | Douglas Stuart | 430 pages | Picador

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