One of the surprises of the Booker Prize longlist this year was the number of debut authors. But, after having read Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, and now Shuggie Bain, it doesn’t surprise me at all that these books snagged a spot. In his fictional debut, Douglas Stuart establishes his world with such sure-footedness that from the opening chapter, you shiver from the coldness of the dank room and can smell the musky scent of Shuggie’s fellow lodgers, and that’s just the beginning of this evocative, gritty debut.
The novel’s eponymous protagonist, Shuggie, is a sweet and lonely boy, who is growing up in Thatcher-era Glasgow where men are out of work and single mothers are trying to hold their families together. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, beneath the pristine surface of make-up and pearly-white false teeth, finds increasing solace in drink and she drains the lion’s share of each week’s benefits. And yet, despite her shortcomings, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. There’s something strangely hypnotising and heroic in her commitment to self-presentation and domestic order, ensuring the house is immaculate before the next ‘uncle’ stops by to take advantage of her. Even when we’re not reading about her, her presence is all-encompassing.
Meanwhile, there’s something sadder than heroism in Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother. His childhood is replaced with caring for his mother and Stuart digs deep into themes of poverty, addiction, and abuse. But, not only does Shuggie suffer the consequences of an alcoholic mother and a philandering father, but also, he doesn’t think he fits the same mould as the other boys on his estate. He feels a growing sense of his otherness and my heart broke watching him grow up around people who either want to hurt him or humiliate him. This is a world without any vocabulary for sexual consent; men do whatever they please, and women and boys like it or lump it. There is also an overarching sense of inevitability, but it’s not predictable. Rather, the reader is gripped, hoping the characters free themselves of poverty and alcoholism.
Although this is by no means an easy read, there are moments of humour that light the overriding bleakness. Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking that this is a grim book. Stuart succeeds in blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, sometimes seamlessly within a single sentence. I can only imagine the time it must have taken to write and craft his characters.
Overall, Shuggie Bain is a devastating, unforgettable novel. I will be surprised and disappointed if this doesn’t make it beyond the longlist.
Thank you, Picador, for sending me an advanced copy of Shuggie Bain in exchange for an honest review.
Looking for more reading recommendations? Read my review of The Death of Vivek Oji by Awaeke Emezi