Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize last year and is one of the contenders for the Tournament of Books. And it is bleak. A lot of the TOB books are bleak this year, but this one is especially so because there’s almost no lightness or weirdness or anything else to temper the fact that this is a story of a kid who is getting hurt again and again and again by the person he loves most in the world.
The book begins with a teenage Shuggie, living on his own in Glasgow, but then it quickly goes back to his early childhood, when his mother takes Shuggie and his brother and sister from Glasgow tenement where she lives with her parents to live with Shuggie’s father, the cab driver Shug Bain. Unfortunately, Shug has other ideas, and as soon as he drops Agnes and the kids off, he goes to live with another girlfriend. And Agnes turns to alcohol.
The thing about Agnes is that she tries, but in all the wrong ways. She strives to look beautiful, which makes her popular with men but not so much the neighbor women who could be a support network. And she gets off the drink sometimes, but never for very long. It is quite clearly an addition. And I found it hard to be angry with Agnes for that reason. I was more angry at the situation. Keeping readers’ right on that line between blaming and sympathizing with Agnes is one of the things that Stuart does really well.
Agnes and her addiction is not the only source of pain for Shuggie. He is also bullied in school, largely because he’s effeminate, and the boys quickly begin mocking him for being gay before he even has a sense of his sexuality. His father and sister both pretty much abandon him. And even when Agnes is seeing better days, money is always tight. But Agnes’s alcoholism is at the root of a lot of his most consistent and devastating pain.
I would like to tell you that there are moments of lightness and joy, but there really aren’t. Or when there are, they are so fleeting as to scarcely seem to exist. Even Shuggie’s love for his mother is spoiled by the way it keeps him tied to her. I would point to the moments of tenderness shown between Shuggie and his mother as bits of hope, but it’s Shuggie showing all the tenderness, and the fact that he’s put in that situation makes it almost too sad to see.