Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Your Christmas reading list is sorted. After months of disappointing starts, I’ve finally found a book that I can recommend with all my heart.

Shuggie Bain is a once in a generation novel that tells the simple story of a son’s devotion to his alcoholic mother.

Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, where the mines have closed and the cycle of poverty is as relentless as addiction itself, 6-year-old Hugh “Shuggie” Bain is already learning how to look after his desperately dependent mother, Agnes. He helps her undress after messy nights, manages her weekly finances, leaves her milky cups of tea and attempts to keep away as many sleazy men as he can.

All the while, Shuggie is dealing with his own problems, including judgmental neighbours and constant bullying about the way he dresses, walks and talks. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, this was not a safe time or place to grow up gay.

Shuggie Bain has been awarded the Booker Prize in 2020. It is the first novel for Scottish writer, Douglas Stuart and I honestly can’t fault it in any way.

I can go on about the parts I loved though.

First, the extremes. Agnes makes terrible, traumatic choices almost every day and the dread and sadness takes its toll. But with every new low there are precious highs and the story always moves forward. Secondly, the characters. From Big Shug and his comb over to quiet Leek and crazy Colleen – the colourful characters all share the same Glaswegian anger, humour and fierce pride. They are however written as fully realised characters; not mere profanity-spewing caricatures. Thirdly, the city of Glasgow plays a critical role, as do the taxi drivers who circle it night and day. These are just some of the not so metaphorical predators that Shuggie is trying to keep away.

To me, Shuggie Bain is a heartbreaking story of devotion and dependency at a time when hope is in short supply. Written beautifully, with sublime detail, perfectly timed flashbacks and historical references, this book will be remembered for many years to come.

And that’s my 2 cents worth.