Content warning: addiction and abuse
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was released in paperback on the 15th April 2021 and I finally got round to reading the 2020 Booker Prize winning novel. Stuart is the second Scottish winner of the prize in its 51-year history, and Shuggie Bain was, unusually, one of eight debut novels in the Booker longlist of thirteen titles.
The extent of the novel’s acclaim continues: it has also been longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2021, longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2021 and was Waterstones’s Scottish Book of the Year 2020.
Stuart’s novel tells the story of Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, growing up with his alcoholic mother in the 1980s, in a post-industrial working-class Glasgow. The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager living, or surviving, alone in a bedsit. Then the book quickly loops back a decade, to 1981, with Shuggie aged five and living in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, ‘Leek’, his sister, Catherine, and his mother, Agnes Bain.
‘Plastered on her face was the glassy grimace that came from under the kitchen sink’
Shuggie Bain was a hard book to read. It was draining and exhausting and heartbreaking. I had to take breaks to stop myself feeling overwhelmed by its searing depictions of poverty, addiction and abuse.
The struggle of reading it was in part because the novel was so vivid and the sense of place was so strong. Even when they became the haunted shells of people they had once been, the characters were distinct and powerfully visible.
For the first few pages I wasn’t sure of the language, which was adjective heavy and almost felt clumsy, but I quickly got swept up in the narrative and got used to the prose.
Douglas Stuart wrote Shuggie Bain over a ten year period, and it is partly inspired by his own experiences of growing up in 1980s Glasgow. He shared; ‘My mother unfortunately suffered with addiction and didn’t survive that addiction. I wanted to tell the story of what it was like to grow up queer in Glasgow and to live with a parent you couldn’t save. Writing the book was incredibly healing.’
‘My mammy had a good year once. It was lovely’
When Agnus Bain sobers up, which happens intermittently in the novel, the hope I shared with Shuggie felt a lot like pain. Even in the most optimistic section of the novel, I could see from where my bookmark sat halfway that it was too good to be true. From the very beginning this didn’t feel like a story that was destined to have a happy ending.
Shuggie and his mother are bound together by love and a helpless desire to protect that runs both ways. Early on in the novel Agnes holds her son in an embrace on the bed while letting the room burn around them, and they remain clinging to each other as if seeking love in hell, which in a sense, I suppose they are.
Some hope in the novel stems from Shuggie’s gradual understanding and acceptance of his sexuality, despite always being told ‘he’s no right’. While many slurs are used, the word gay is not spoken once in the text, not even by Shuggie himself. However, unlike almost all the other characters in the novel, his mother has always let him be himself, encouraging him to dance in the faces of his bullies.
Shuggie Bain on screen
Shuggie Bain looks set to become a TV show, after A24 and Scott Rudin Productions have won the rights to the novel. Scott Rudin and Eli Bush will produce the series, while Stuart plans to adapt the novel himself.
While Shuggie and Agnes do deserve a TV show, and the book already has moments of cinematic beauty, I have to confess I do not want to watch the story. Sometimes picking up the book felt difficult, and I think the temptation to close my eyes to block out Shuggie’s pain on screen would be too great for me.
The scenes of violence and abuse would be difficult to watch, as would the relentless monotony of the alcohol abuse. I also felt a great deal of sympathy and love for Agnes in print, and I am worried that I would struggle to translate this love to her on screen, though perhaps the fault on this point would be mine.
My advice would be: read it, but do not try to consume it all at once, or else it will consume you, and make it hard to shake off the searing pain of Shugie’s hardship. I struggled with this aspect of reading Shuggie Bain, but I also recognise it as the book’s greatest success.