He wanted to crush her with his secrets the way she had once done him with hers. “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” He asked quietly.262
Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain (Grove Press, 2020) was recently awarded the highly coveted Booker Prize. It’s my favorite book award, and I try and read some of the selections from the long list each year. This year, I gravitated toward the shortlist. Shuggie Bain is my third from that list, and while I still think The Shadow King should have received the award, I can certainly appreciate why Shuggie Bain won. This is not a book I will soon forget.
If I call this novel the fictional and Scottish Angela’s Ashes, you will one hundred percent understand how weighty this novel of addiction, family, and sexuality is. In the same breath, let me tell you this is not just another Angela’s Ashes and it doesn’t deserve any sort of “been there, read that” brush aside. Set in 1980s Glasgow, Shuggie Bain hits like a punch or a hard kiss under a cold rain.
Stuart did a masterful job creating broken and beautiful characters, particularly in Agnes, and this book rings clear like the bells on Christmas day. Agnes has dreams, but time and life and men keep getting in the way. She leaves her first husband, a dependable (boring) Catholic, for Shuggie, a handsome cabbie with promises of a new life and all she’s ever wanted. In a flashback, we learn that she was supposed to leave Catherine and Leek behind, but she couldn’t do it; Agnes could never walk away from her children. Big Shug’s promises are empty, but the bottles of booze aren’t. Agnes attempts to drown her demons and all of her shattered dreams in cans of lager and bottles of vodka. It works only until the alcohol is out of her system and the weight of her reality comes crashing down. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of addiction and despair, worsened by co-dependent and abusive relationships.
Shuggie, the youngest of Agnes’s children, has his own demons. He is “no right” as everyone likes to say. As he mothers his mother, he struggles with his secrets and his truths. He wants so desperately to be “normal,”, but he’s a boy who doesn’t like boy things. He prefers dollies and fruity scented ponies to footballs and fishing. Agnes believes it is because his father is a sorry excuse of man who left them all. She begs a man in the neighborhood to spend time with her son, to take him fishing and do boy things with him. The man uses her, promising to teach the boy how to fish, but it’s just words to barter for her body. Each time a man pushed inside Agnes, Shuggie’s heart (and mine) broke a little more.
This novel is wrapped in bruise, and it smells like day old beer and stale smoke. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone, but I would certainly recommend it.