Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

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.

“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. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.”

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.

“Rain was a natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial.”

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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Nails: Earthy Vibe by Mylee

Mordew by Alex Pheby

Nowadays, bookshop shelves groan under the hefty weight of fantasy novels. They are often large, over four hundred pages, with striking covers and dramatic titles, following a typical format of: The [noun] of the [noun]. Readers are inundated with medieval societies, spattered with magic, violence and destiny, the majority of which with a very unsubtle Celtic nod.

The sheer volume of these books saturates the fantasy market and it can be difficult to find innovative, original world building, and then Mordew by Alex Pheby came along.

What initially excited me about this book were two things: the cover, a dark and dynamic etching, and the fact that it was published by Galley Beggar Press.

Mordew is a fantastical city built on the corpse of God. It is protected by an enormous seawall, which the infamous firebirds throw their bodies against in between gargantuan waves. The city is spliced by spiralling stone walls, segregating its citizens by class, and ruled by the imposing silhouette of the Master, who derives his magical powers from the buried deity.

A young boy called Nathan Treeves lives in the lowest tier of the city, in the slums shoulder to shoulder with the Living Mud, which spawns and spews out half-formed creatures into the impoverished streets. His life is meagre and desperate and thrown upside down the day his mother sells him to their mysterious Master.

But Nathan is not ordinary. He has the Spark, a magic that swells and bursts out of him, and the reader accompanies him as he discovers just powerful he really is.

It opens with a Dramatis Personae, which includes but is not limited to:

  • Anaximander – a talking dog, trained for violence, but with refined sensibilities”
  • Gam Halliday – a self-made boy. Out of the Mud he gathered what parts came to hand until a child like a bird’s nest was there, made from twigs and leavings stuck together against the wind with spit
  • Jerky Joes – two children in one, they are part of Gam Halliday’s criminal gang
  • Prissy – a slum girl and part of Gam Halliday’s gang. When a song is sung it can be very affecting, but when its notes echo in the slums of Mordew, inevitably some beauty is lost

The story is extraordinary. Pheby doesn’t shy away from the darkness that many children face in our world – forced labour, trafficking, poverty and abuse – and exposes it with a rawness that is disturbingly close to home. Pheby tells the reader this from the outset, warning them of what to expect:

“a child who is all limbs and nothing else”
“a child who is made into a ghost”
“a child with the face of a dog”
“a child, blind in one eye, whose sight is partially returned”
“a number of children, beaten”.

The story is both immense and confined, foreign but reflective, and this dichotomy is pleasing. It’s like the feeing you get when you see little people doing big things. RGB sitting on the Supreme Court, the statue of the Fearless Girl, Frodo standing before the flames of Mount Doom. It is a common fantasy trope, but executed with delicacy.

While there are talking dogs, malicious Fagan-like figures and malevolent lung worms, a Machiavellian yet endearing troupe of children is at the heart of this novel. Nathan is sincere but crotchety, Gam Halliday is part-unscrupulous criminal, part-Artful Dodger, and Prissy, the female lead, is as brassy as she is vulnerable. An author who can write children with such dexterity, and without condescension, is a rare thing.

This is a fantasy novel which was truly one of the best in the genre I have read in a long time. It was daring and original, but also full of everything you expect from a strong fantasy – skilfully written storytelling and compelling characters.

It was also expertly published, with beautiful and curious illustrations, bookmarks and online quizzes that came with it. It is an exceptional project, pulled off with considerable care and style.


Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press, 2020)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy