12 May Book review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is a heart wrenching, yet thought provoking and memorable read that I put down many times to compose myself.
The book follows the childhood of Shuggie Bain, the youngest son of Agnes and Shug Bain. The boy grew up in the 80s, spending his lonely childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. At the time, the working-class was ravaged under Thatcher policies, with little to no jobs and a grim-looking future. Addiction is rife – people using it as a coping mechanism with the grey world around them.
Although the book is named after Shuggie Bain, we get the impression that he’s a supporting character in his own life with his mother taking centre stage. Big Shug, Shuggie’s father is a philandering taxi driver who isn’t a stable physical presence in his and Agnes’s lives, but is a constant looming figure throughout the book. It is a theme throughout – other characters and influences in Shuggie’s life overshadowing his own experiences. Out of habit or because of circumstance, he seems to feel safer and at ease living in these shadows.
Agnes Bain, disappointed with life, makes questionable decisions that impacts not only her, but also her 3 children. She is an alcoholic who lives to spend her weekly benefits on beer and vodka, numbing the realities in which she finds herself. After money is spent on drink, there’s very little to none left for food or other basic necessities, meaning Shuggie and his siblings go without food a lot of the time.
Part of altering her reality, Agnes takes great care in her appearance and likens herself to Elizabeth Taylor. Although her efforts are admired by all around her, underneath the varnish there is a rough interior. Agnes dreams of bigger things, a house with its own door and weekly shops out of catalogues for things she can never repay to appear being better off than they are.
Her life seems to be consumed with finding a man to take care of her and her children and alcohol, which leaves little room for living a fulfilled and happy life. Shuggie’s older siblings find ways to put distance between them and their mother, leaving the youngest to deal with her. He loves his mother, and unwaveringly believes that she will change even when she has proved him wrong time and time again. He takes it on himself to take care of her and help her get back on the right track. The saddest of all is that Shuggie blames himself for her alcoholism and carries that burden as a child.
In addition to feeling responsible for his mother, Shuggie also longs to be a normal boy, something that seems to evade him. He is not the same as every other boy he knows and gets bullied for it by children living in his street and the kids at school, even adults get there jibes in from time to time. This leads to a lonely childhood, with his mother as his only friend. Although Agnes is supportive of her son, her addiction gets in the way of being the caring and kind mother she is when sober.
It’s an eye-opening tale of addiction, love, sexuality and the struggles of working-class families in the 80s.
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