I spent months watching @dsweet_library hype this book up. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a reader go so hard for a novel before. It was awesome. So anyways, of course I added it to my TBR. Since then, it also won the 2020 Booker and was a National Book Award Finalist, so other, quite official, voices are jumping on the @dsweet_library hype train.
Shuggie Bain is the story of the titular Shuggie. Born to a working-class family in Glasgow, we follow him through most of the 1980s, as he grows through his childhood/early adolescence. And while he is definitely a central point/lynchpin, as it’s focused on his formative years and leaves us at the end with a view as he steps into a future that, while not unlimited, does hold some possibility still, it’s also very much about his mother, Agnes. We spent much of the beginning of the novel getting to know her family and background and being introduced to the rest of the Bain family, including Shuggie’s mostly nonexistent father, Big Shug, and his two older step-siblings, Catherine and Leek. And as the story progresses, Agnes’ struggle with alcoholism and addiction, and the way it affects the family, focuses closer and closer in on the specific relationship between Agnes and Shuggie. She is his only constant and touchpoint, while she tries her best to support him, while losing many fights against her personal demons. As a side-theme, but one that is very much embedded throughout in the way Shuggie interacts both with other kids his age and adults, as well as the way they react at/to him and communicate with him, is the fact that Shuggie is “no right,” a boy unlike the other “normal” boys.
“That was the problem with the young ones; they saw no reason to not expect better for themselves.”
I had my name on the holds list for both the audiobook and physical book and was very excited about them becoming available around the same time. Having both was phenomenal for my reading experience. The narrator was freaking amazing – he brought the story to life so well. But also, I am not from Glasgow, or anywhere in Scotland for that matter, and so having the physical book on hand as reference helped me decipher some of the accent and guided my spelling for some dialect-googling I had to do. As a result, it took some extra time/effort to adjust to the flow and language of the novel, but oh my goodness it was a wonderfully immersive experience and so completely worth it. I’m not even totally sure what to say or how to review this, but let me just start by saying that it was spectacular. I felt completely transported into the crumbling working-class society of 1980s Glasgow. The affectations, mannerisms and daily life minutiae for each of the characters, and the various communities/living situations the Bain family found themselves in, was so thorough and intricate. Societal norms and the subtle differences between them in different neighborhoods, the realities of being out of work as mining and other working-industries failed, the details of receiving social support, the depth of the religious tension between Catholics and Protestants (and what that looked like in everyday life), the general expectations on growing up as a boy and the way deviations from the “norm” are treated, job prospects for men and woman and how culture/family affected options there – it’s all such a complete and candid exposition of a specific population, setting and time period.
“She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later.”
I also want to point out a few extra highlights. First, the intra-family dynamics. Oh my goodness, the interactions of parents, grandparents, siblings, children, spouses (and ex-spouses). Stuart puts words to so many particulars and facets that I would have thought impossible to explain or communicate. And he does it with a sort of stoic acceptance of the difficult truths, while still finding an ability to celebrate those small moments of beauty or love or happiness. On that note, the relationship between Agnes and Shuggie is one that will break your heart over and over. Being able to see how much his mother means to Shuggie, the sweetness and care he shows her, the intensity with which he stores away her pieces of advice and lives his life according to them – at times you want to crush his naivete out of him, but also you can’t help but love his hopefulness. And for Agnes’ part, the unyielding defense of Shuggie for who he is (whoever he is), the support and love she shows him when she’s truly present, that’s the kind of unconditional parental love that is so rare, and cannot be quantified. And yet, and here is the last outstanding aspect of the novel I want to highlight, Agnes’ addiction refuses to let up. Stuart writes about addiction in the way only someone who has seen it and lived with it can do. It’s some of the best writing about addiction I have ever read (and I literally just finished Transcendent Kingdom, which also provides a beautifully nuanced portrayal of addition). Seeing how alcoholism wreaks havoc on the Bain family again and again, with bouts of clarity that give just enough hope to them that things *could* be “good” again, and seeing how, despite all of Agnes’ (and Shuggies’) efforts, the combination of the conditions of life and the people surrounding them and the hard truth that addiction is a disease that must constantly be “treated,” there is no rest for them. It’s just impossible. And it all leaves the reader feeling super raw after finishing.
“Well, ye know what ah think? Ah think the more ye love someone the more they take the piss out of that. They will do less and less of what ye want and more and more of just as they fuckin’ please.”
This novel had a gritty realism to it and I was just so impressed because honestly this is a (too) common story, in the sense that it’s familiar to many and in the sense that it focuses on a family that is not the highest or worst off or most interesting or an extreme of anything. They just…were. And to make such a compelling story out of something like that takes so much skill; to write something so raw and full of feeling. You can feel the strength of emotion that Stuart has for this story that he is telling, the way it is so much of his story, on every page, in every moment. That emotion knocks you right off your damn feet as a reader. This reads like a classic tragedy (I keep thinking of Le Mis, if I’m honest) in a modern reality – there is so much desperation, yet the reader gets an ending with momentum towards acceptance/hope – and, I think, deserves of all the awards and hype.