Shuggie Bain

What I learned from… ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stewart

Shuggie BainAbout the book

It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life, dreaming of greater things. But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and as she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves.

It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. Shuggie is different, he is clearly no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.

What I learned

Shuggie Bain is a story of hope and despair, and how people trapped in bad situations lash out at each other; but most of all, how they abuse themselves when life gives no other option.

Using a close omniscient view, Douglas Stewart takes the reader through the streets of just-about-to-be post-industrial Glasgow, peopled by characters who seem out of place with themselves and the world, and seeking refuge in violence, assault and addiction.

We first meet Shuggie in 1992, when he’s a teenager living alone in a grim bedsit, scratching a living and dreaming of a more glamorous, fulfilling life. But this isn’t Billy Elliot. There’s no rags-to-riches ascent for Shuggie. Instead, the reader is taken back to the beginning of the 1980s to see how Shuggie’s life began.

If he played it right, the man was always good for a few pounds. But
it would take too long to wait on Mr Darling to cash his unemployment;
to stoat from the post office to the betting shop to the off-licence and
then home, that was if he found his way home at all. Shuggie couldn’t
wait that long.

The boy let go of the parka then, and Mr Darling pretended not
to stare as the coat gaped slightly. But the man seemed unable to help
himself, and Shuggie watched as the grey light in his green eyes dipped.
Shuggie could feel it burn into his pale chest as the man’s gaze slid down
over his loose underwear to his bare legs, the unremarkable, white hair-
less things, that hung like uncut thread from the bottom of his black coat.

Only then did Mr Darling smile.

What most impressed me was the way Stewart works to engender sympathy for almost all the characters in the book, no matter how badly they behave to themselves or one another. The relentless grimness of their lives hangs over them, constantly driving them down till there’s no escape apart from through abuse, addiction and despair. But there are also glimmers of hope. Young Shuggie, a gay, sensitive boy, is full of love for his troubled mum, and he stands out like a glittery gem among the black slagheaps of Pithill.

At times it’s a challenging read, focusing on Shuggie’s mum, Agnes, as she descends into alcoholism. She’s fierce, flawed and vulnerable, drinking her way through her life with only Shuggie for company throughout. She’s never afraid of a fight, but Stewart does a great job of showing her vulnerabilities, especially around men. There’s one particularly harrowing scene where a neighbour pops in to encourage Agnes to drink; inviting some no-hope man over for a ‘party’ that descends into low-level horror.

Shuggie is Agnes’s only constant companion as her addiction grows over the years. He tries repeatedly to steer her through multiple, endless crises as best he can.

At the end of the book there’s a hint of hope, but then thinking back over what I’d just read, I was reminded of the story’s grim beginning, and Shuggie’s ‘present’ situation. I was left wondering if Shuggie ever made his way out. I think that’s Stewart’s masterstroke here – looping the reader back to the beginning and wondering, and dreading, history repeating itself.

More about this book

Published in 2020 by Picador

Shuggie Bain at Pan Macmillan

Douglas Stewart on X

About ‘What I learned…’

I read anything and everything and think there’s writing inspiration to take from from books of every genre.

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