Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. 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 by Douglas Stuart, Longlisted for Booker Prize 2020, is by far the most stunning and heartbreaking novel I have read this year. It is a historical fiction set during the Margaret Thatcher era that focuses on the everyday lives of masses living in Scotland and the cruel reality of life.

This story centres around Shuggie’s relationship with his mother, Agnes. She is his hero and the light of his life. Agnes, who struggles with a drinking problem, in her sober times reciprocates Shuggie’s love. In the Bain family, we meet Shuggie’s two older siblings and a near-absent father, who drives a taxi to make a living.

It is not an easy read as this family is continually trying to escape the claws of unemployment and hunger. We notice, just like the Bains, it is also numerous other families of coal-mining workers who’ve lost their meagre-income jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.

Within the first few pages, I was sucked right into this narrative. It hurt to see Shuggie and his siblings cleaning the mess made by the adults in their life. What mainly makes one feel sorry for is Shuggie’s effort at being ‘normal’ and seek validation from a society which constantly rejects him. I especially loved seeing Anges’ relationship with her parents since her childhood days. I felt more attached to her and continued rooting for her till the very end.

We see children’s constant plight to keep their mother away from her drink and judge her moods while she is drunk. Unlike his older siblings, Shuggie’s particular affinity to his mother makes hope that she will sober up. Stuart also gives us a glimpse from Agnes’ perspective. Her harrowing and constant inner battle with liquor and the men who have ill-treated her. The author’s description of addiction is excellent. Currently, keeping my fingers crossed and hoping it gets the much-deserved acknowledgement.

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