Review: ‘Shuggie Bain’ Douglas Stuart

It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. 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. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as 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.

I tend to steer clear of anything that I so eloquently dub ‘depressing shit’, but when Shuggie Bain was announced as the November read for my work’s book club, I decided to give it ago. It’s set in Glasgow, a city I now call home, and I’m interested in social history. Sure, Shuggie Bain is a work of fiction, but it’s based on real events and I figured it would be a window into life in 1980s working class Glasgow.

I’ll start this review by saying that Shuggie Bain is a bleak book and readers should go into it aware that there are multiple instances of rape and sexual abuse, as well as a running theme of alcoholism.

Readers follow Shuggie from his early childhood into his teenage years, although it’s difficult to call his early years a ‘childhood’. Shuggie has the crippling weight of responsibility on his shoulders from a very young age and when most of his peers are playing outside and having fun, Shuggie’s spending his days caring for his alcoholic mother, Agnes. What makes Shuggie’s story all the more tragic is that despite everything Agnes puts him through, he loves her fiercely and even when everyone else has given up on her, he still wants to believe that she’ll get better. This unwavering hope is a tragic thing to behold because even during Agnes’ sober days, weeks and months, readers just know that it’s not going to last and that she’s never truly going to get ‘better’.

Despite Agnes’ neglect of Shuggie, I found it difficult to be angry with her. Instead, I found my heart breaking. She turns to drink as a way of blocking out her pain and despite her dependence on it, she desperately wants to be a good mother and tries so hard to be just that. Again, as with Shuggie’s hope, Agnes’ efforts to stay sober and be a good parent are tinged with a tragic inevitably. No matter how hard she tries or how long she stays sober, it’s obvious that it’s not going to last.

I’ve read multiple reviews on Goodreads which warn potential readers that they need to be in a good headspace before embarking upon the emotional journey that is Shuggie Bain and I agree. It’s a dark, depressing book, but I think any book based on working class life under Thatcherist rule is going to be. In summary, Shuggie Bain is heart-breakingly tragic, but beautifully written book and I’m glad that I decided to read it despite my initial hesitation.

Want to read Shuggie Bain? Head on over to Hive or Bookshop to order your copy, or buy it through your local bookstore.

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3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Shuggie Bain’ Douglas Stuart

    1. Thank you! If you do decide to read it, I recommend having a feel-good book on hand as well. I had to keep switching between Shuggie Bain and a trashy romance to stop myself from getting too depressed 😂

      Liked by 1 person

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