Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain, which has won the Booker Prize 2020, is a raw, realistic and immensely moving tale of growing up in a dysfunctional family in 1980s Glasgow. It is about the relationship between a mother and her son – a mother who descends into despair and alcoholism, and a son who loves and supports her in spite of it, even as he grapples with his growing awareness that he is gay.
Agnes Bain – beautiful, glamorous, and always wanting more beauty and quality from life – is damaged by her romantic decisions. She has left her stable, but boring, first husband for a flamboyant man who gives her tough love. But when he turns out to be a womaniser, Agnes seeks comfort in alcohol. Her addiction gets worse when he leaves her after abandoning the family in a bleak, impoverished cluster of mining tenements at the edge of Glasgow.
Agnes’s children from her first husband, Catherine and Leek, and eight-year-old Shuggie from her second, watch their mother’s unravelling with alarm. None of them doubts her essential goodness and grace, but it is Shuggie who understands and empathises with Agnes the most. In time, the older children leave home one by one, and it falls to Shuggie to deal with Agnes hitting the bottle every day and the frantic business of making ends meet on their meagre welfare cheque.
Stuart, who is gay, grew up in Glasgow, and whose mother died of alcoholism, has obviously drawn from his own life experiences in his debut novel. And perhaps it is that which lends Shuggie Bain its realism and ring of truth. The process of Shuggie’s recognising and coming to terms with his sexuality in hardscrabble Glasgow in the 1980s is slow and painful. His sense of alienation as a child has much to do with people telling him that he is “no right”.
He suffers taunts from his schoolmates, and physical abuse, too. There is a time when, in an effort to fit in, he tries to walk like a “normal” boy. Without the slightest trace of sentimentality or the stain of victimhood, Stuart explores just how tough it is for a little boy to grow up homosexual in an illiberal and brutal environment.
But while Shuggie’s transformative journey is at the centre of the story, it is Agnes who towers over the novel. Agnes, who after every drunken binge, pulls herself out of her grave, and presents herself to the world again. She curls and sets her hair, puts on her make-up, her sexy clothes, and perhaps her old mink coat.
Agnes, plucky, spirited and loving, who goes to pieces every day, only to put herself back together by dressing elegantly – because to her, that, if nothing else, is an affirmation that she retains her dignity and grace, that she may give in to alcoholism but never to defeatism or slovenliness. There is something utterly fascinating, and heartbreaking, about Agnes rising from the ashes every single day, and her character is without doubt the author’s finest achievement in the novel.
Stuart’s narrative is fairly fast-paced, and he chooses not to bury his story in a morass of details about the economic deprivations of miners in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Yet the poverty and the despair of the working class at the time are clear and present, and they give the novel its hard, raw edge.
The slag hills, the coarse men and the faded, disappointed women who inhabit the drab, decrepit miners’ quarters where Agnes comes to live with her family, are meticulously evoked, and they are at once a perfect setting for and a symbol of the seam of decay and loss that runs through the novel.
Shuggie Bain, like so many other books that have gone on to win accolades, was reportedly rejected by multiple editors before it got picked for publication. That it has won the Booker Prize, perhaps beating contenders who were being tipped to win, is a testament to the magic of its storytelling – a story told with heart and without contrivance.
Shuma Raha is a writer.
Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, Picador.