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The Student reviews: 2020 Booker Prize winner ‘Shuggie Bain’

TW: addiction and mention of sexual violence

Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world.

Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, is Scottish-American Douglas Stuart’s debut novel. The novel follows the story of Agnes Bain and her son Shuggie, two conspicuously colourful characters amidst a dusty grey backdrop of high-rises and housing estates. Set in 1980s Glasgow, the Thatcherite government has closed the collieries and the atmosphere is one of alienation and aimlessness. During the day, redundant miners slink off to pubs whilst young ‘Jakeys’ sniff glue and torment the local populace.

Trapped in this stagnant limbo, Agnes Bain feels out of place. She is strikingly beautiful and proud of her appearance. Her son Shuggie stands out too, but for a different reason. The folk wisdom of family and neighbours is that Shuggie is ‘no right’. He is effeminate, his speech is clipped, and he doesn’t behave like other boys. Agnes’ mother Lizzie suggests she ought to get this ‘nipped in the bud’. Agnes is struggling with alcoholism and, having left her first husband, she marries the Protestant Big Shug, a sexually violent narcissist who is both possessive and regularly unfaithful. As Agnes’ drinking descends into addiction her husband and children, Catherine and ‘Leek’, look for a way out. Only Shuggie will stay with Agnes until she recovers, destructively tying his fate to hers.

Stuart’s observant prose imbues working-class Glasgow with a brutal and neglected air. The reader, like the protagonists, feels hemmed in by the towers and the monotony of a life that permits few chances of escape. Stuart finds music in the harsh Glasgow patter and humour in its communal pessimism. Nevertheless, there is a deep melancholy to the novel. The darkness is tinged with hope and yet the characters are locked in their ways. It seems deliberately unclear how much of their misfortune comes from without. Divided between four separate periods in the 1980s and 90s, the novel lacks continuity and is not entirely chronological. The tragedy being that each time the characters are reintroduced, we quickly and fatalistically infer what little has changed.  

Much of the novel’s pace is determined by movement. Shifting location plays a recurring role in Agnes and Shuggie’s story. Each time they move, from the high-rise to the housing estate, and from the housing estate to the city, there is a sense of renewal. Agnes will stop drinking and Shuggie will be more like the other children, less of a pariah. In one passage, Agnes and Shuggie sit before Agnes’s outfits, ‘with their knees touching, deciding what versions of her to bring and what to leave behind’. But there is a shadow upon mother and son. When Agnes falls into an inevitable binging episode, and Shuggie is identified as other, they take refuge with each other. Stuart deftly portrays the perils of co-dependency fraught with need, threats and a sense of inescapable duty. There is a remarkable authenticity to Stuart’s characters. He has, in turn, confirmed that the novel is semi-autobiographical. Despite its forlorn tone, Shuggie Bain is a must-read and a worthy recipient of this year’s Booker prize.

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