Shuggie Bain is a revelation, and I am in equal parts intimidated and horrified that it is a debut.
Hugh “Shuggie” Bain and his mother Agnes are poor. They survive on benefits while navigating the brutal poverty of 1980s Glasgow. According to everyone else, Shuggie is “no right”. He dresses smartly, reveres refinement and tidiness, and prefers dancing to kicking a bladder. Agnes, who was a young mother, has always hopped between men, forever seeking out a consistent, unconditional kind of love. The reader observes them grow, develop and regress during Shuggie’s formative years, and at the novel’s core is a story about the unyielding love between mother and son.
Whenever a male author writes women, I approach their work with scepticism and I am neither afraid or ashamed to admit this. But Agnes’s dimensions are laid bare like scars, but layered, like the cheap make-up she slathers on her face. She is tragic, brassy, and unapologetically feminine. She is an alcoholic, and there is an authentic disparity in her unrelenting resilience and frightening vulnerability. Douglas has written her with considerable care and tenderness, and as such I found myself completely furled in her story, celebrating her fleeting wins and grieving throughout her slow, ebbing defeat.
Shuggie Bain is queer, Celtic, working-class and unabashedly Glaswegian, the latter element being one of its most endearing qualities. While the story is desperately sad, it also has moments that are exceptionally funny. Reading those scenes felt like coming up for air, as though breaching the surface with a gasping laugh, before sinking back into Shuggie’s daily reality.
While reading it, every word sounded around my head, tinged with glottal stops and a deeply affectionate patter. It nailed the cantankerous, independent nature that defines Glasgow, and its exceptional, stubborn and singular identity. As a reader, this insight made me feel privileged, and in a strange way, proud.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the region, the landscape is dexterously laid bare. Pithead is as desolate as it sounds. In my mind, it appeared washed in greyscale and loomed over by redundant slag heaps that are, in many ways, the defining image of Thatcher’s Britain. Estates are in equal parts communal and secluded. Loneliness and shame are cemented within the concrete tower blocks, where out-of-work men sit around all day, doing nothing. This theme of desolation is not shied away from, nor is it overtly exhibited, but it is unmistakably there, inescapably omnipresent.
Sometimes Douglas’s writing feels heavy. Chunky paragraphs consist of long, heavy sentences, like a wall layered with row upon row of bricks, but I can appreciate its beauty nonetheless. It doesn’t happen often that a new writer debuts with such a mature and honed voice, and one that resonates with both political significance and emotional devotion.
Reading Shuggie Bain, I desperately wanted to hear the voices and see the faces, because the characters felt so real to me, as though they had walked out of a film reel. As evidence of its lasting impact, I now have a musical loop swirling around my head, endlessly singing “Shuggie Bain is in my ears and in my eyes”.
Shuggie Bain by Stuart Douglas (Picador Books, 2020)
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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
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