Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Reviewed by Marion Husband
Word Count 493
Pan Macmillan, 430 pages, Fiction
Hardback Edition £8.00
Shuggie Bain is a fictional story about the powerful and loving relationship between a young boy and his alcoholic mother. A compelling and at times painful read, the theme is of love, addiction, poverty, and sexuality and family relationships.
Shuggie, the main character becomes the caregiver for his mother as she falls into the depths of alcoholism. There is a strong human to human bond between the two characters throughout.
Agnes Bain, has 3 children, Catherine, Alexander (Leek) and young Shuggie. Her partner Shug, a taxi driver in the city does not live up to her expectations. She is aware of his adulterous liaisons in the black hackney “because once upon a time it had been her”.
Agnes has always dreamt of a better life, Shug finds them a house with a garden and front door in Pithead, a council estate on the outskirts of the city surrounded with marshland and “burnt hills” once a working mine but now derelict.
He has no intention of staying. Agnes is a proud woman and does not leave the house without her heels, long mohair coat and lipstick. She collects the benefit money each week and heads straight for the special brew, food for the family an afterthought.
Her feelings of self-worth plummet when she sees bruises on her inner thighs jolting a memory of yet another degrading experience the night before although she has no memory of it.
Shuggie is aware he is different and throughout the book he is referred to by neighbours and family, “he is no right”. Agnes is sensitive of her son’s effeminate side and buys him a baby doll, Daphne. He is taunted by his peers “is that a wee dolly ye’ve got there Shuggie?” “Are ye a wee poof?”
Shuggie takes the reader with him sharing his anxiety as he comes home from school praying that his mother is sober. “Agnes was asleep in the chair, she looked like a melted candle”. It is Shuggie who cleans her up and removes her clothes.
There is a clear message that in her moments of sobriety Agnes wants to be a good mother and there are some tender moments, deep down she loves her children but the need for alcohol takes first priority.
The setting drives the plot for the book, brutally honest and painfully sad giving the reader a glimpse into the dark world of poverty and addiction. There are many caring and affectionate moments between mother and son and it is clear that Agnes is fully accepting and proud of Shuggie and never tried to change him.
The author makes many references to the Glasgow humour where the story is set which sometimes adds some lightness to the story.
I would highly recommend this book however with 430 pages an edited shorter version would have the same impact.
Douglas Stuart lives in New York and Shuggie Bain is his first novel, it has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.