Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador, 2020).
I received a copy of Shuggie Bain as a Christmas present, and I was particularly interested to read a first novel, set in Glasgow, written by a Glaswegian, that has won the 2020 Booker Prize. “A novel of rare and lasting beauty”, said The Observer. “A heartbreaking novel… both beautiful and brutal… Tough, tender and beautifully sad”, said The Times. There were further endorsements from the Booker Prize judges, and the New Statesman. Already knowing that Shuggie Bain was all about Glasgow, addiction, and despair, I wondered about that. Was this adulation from the middle classes a reflection of some kind of voyeurism? Could a hedge fund manager from the City of London, or a teacher of creative writing at Yale, or even a privately-schooled lawyer residing in Glasgow G12, sitting in his conservatory perhaps reading one of these reviews while sipping a hazelnut latte, possibly empathise with the people in this book? Would they not read it rather as an anthropologist might study a hitherto unknown tribe newly discovered in the Amazon? These people would be entirely alien. The Literati would read about them and discuss their way of life amongst themselves. Isn’t that remarkable?
But at the end of the day, I’m sure Shuggie Bain won the Booker because it really is a powerful and vivid depiction of the lives of people trapped in the cycle of poverty, addiction, and despair. It’s a familiar scenario, and no doubt something similar could be encountered in any city in the world. Of course Glasgow’s urban landscape, the wretched climate, and the dialect, all have their unique personality, but a reader in New York, or LA, or Sydney, or Auckland, will recognise the ubiquity of urban destitution, and the Glasgow “patter” will be no barrier; quite the contrary.
The principal character in the book is not Shuggie, whose childhood life we follow for about a decade, but Shuggie’s mother Agnes, whose alcoholism is a kind of wrecking ball destroying everything it encounters. The narrative is not entirely bleak. Agnes has her better days. There is Glasgow humour, but it is beyond dark; it is black. I found myself caring for Agnes. Was she going to get better? Who knows, maybe she would have a kind of “Shawshank Redemption” and escape her prison. I wanted her to, but I was always anxious for her, and I had a notion that everybody who cared for her would eventually up and leave. In the end, does she stop drinking, or does she succumb, and lose everything and everybody? I won’t say. But I don’t think a spoiler alert is needed if I go so far as to say the last section of the book is cathartic. I did indeed experience a kind of purgation of pity and terror.
Shuggie Bain is beautifully written. I was particularly struck by the originality of Douglas Stuart’s imagery. Startling metaphysical juxtapositions. I wonder why this Booker Prize winner has not received more fanfare in Scotland. I suspect it might be because it is such a painful read. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, from Irvine in Ayrshire, herself a bibliophile, called it “A searing, brutal and deeply moving account of poverty, addiction, and childhood trauma”. Searing and brutal, you may ask, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Hardy’s Jude the Obscure? Yes, all of that. But, for me, much more. You see, I come from Glasgow. So when I first opened the book I thought to myself, I’m not sure I want to go through with this. But I braced myself and I read it with an intense sense of familiarity and the sharp shock of recognition. What a book to choose to read during lockdown! I was depressed to my boots for about three days.
Coincidentally, it came to light last week that in 2019 there were 1,264 drug-related deaths in Scotland. This is the highest rate in Europe. Nicola Sturgeon has called it a “national disgrace”. Glasgow is the epicentre of this. There is a district in Glasgow, just to the east of Glasgow Green, where the average life expectancy of a male is 54 years. There is a hypothesis that there exists an unknown “Glasgow Factor” that contributes to the appalling morbidity and mortality statistics. Perhaps it is multifactorial. Maybe Shuggie Bain is a description of the Glasgow Factor.
Although the author denies that Shuggie Bain is autobiographical, he does admit he was very much writing from personal experience. Douglas Stuart left Glasgow and went to the Royal College of Art in London. Then he moved to New York. He got out.
Does Shuggie get out? You must read the book. But brace yourself.