Shuggie Bain, the debut novel from author Douglas Stuart is a gut punch on nearly every page. It’s the story of a kid growing up in Glasgow, Scotland during the 1980s. He’s the youngest of three kids born to an alcoholic mother. His older siblings have a different dad. And every day is precarious for the whole family, but especially for Shuggie.
He’s “no normal,” as they say. Rather than play with the other boys in his down-on-its-luck former mining town, young Shuggie watches over his mom and plays with his dolly. As he gets older, he realizes how different he is from those boys. And even though he somehow stands firm in a child’s version of self-knowledge, they catch him and put him through hell.
As he tells the story, Stuart covers every topic during this fraught era in the United Kingdom. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Scotland suffered terrible economic woes and poverty. The moms collect government assistance. The dads work for wages paid under the table, if they work at all. And people with a lot of time on their hands start drinking early in the day.
In the beginning of the book Shuggie’s older sister Catherine hunts their brother, called Leek, down in his deserted shipping container hideout. They set the scene with details about life in the Bain household that Shuggie is too young to grasp. But Stuart’s readers get it. Life is going to be a rough go for these kids.
Parental involvement—or not
Agnes, the kids’ mom, is a variously functioning alcoholic. Most days she cleans herself up, dresses in a sexy outfit bought on credit, and gets a few things done. But her main focus is that next drink and the black-out drunk afterwards. As a result, on other days she’s not functional at all. Agnes doesn’t focus on her kids and they mostly raise themselves, drifting in and out of school.
None of them have a clear sense of appropriate parental boundaries. In fact, they’d laugh their arses off if they heard that term. Agnes expects Shuggie to take care of her, and he knows nothing else. Even though she is theoretically responsible for him, it’s actually the child who is responsible for the mother. When she does step up, what happens is truly odd. For example, making a “swimming pool” from an abandoned refrigerator. And if that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what would.
Both Agnes and Shuggie aren’t quite what their neighbors would call “normal.” She is deep in her drink. And he doesn’t do the same things or like the same stuff that his school mates do. He dresses in his “gangster” outfits—suits and ties. And his impulses and feelings definitely reflect homosexuality, as do some of his experiences. The kids around him take brutal advantage of this. At the same time, his father is a toxic masculinity role model. Stuart creates a confluence of alcoholism and sexual identity in the stories of Agnes and Shuggie. They are connected by the fact they’re so different from everyone else, even though they aren’t like each other at all.
I will think about Shuggie for a long time. His story is heart breaking and sadly not uncommon. He doesn’t choose the childhood he’s stuck with. But he still persists at being himself even when it costs him.
On the other hand, Agnes and her alcoholism illustrate both an illness and a choice to stay sick. She made me alternately sad and angry, because she never puts her kids before that next binge. They go without food because she needs her lager. And yet, Stuart makes her a tragic figure rather than despising her. It’s complicated.
Stuart draws the family’s picture with eloquence and grace, even as it’s bloody awful. I hope he keeps writing because I want to see where he goes next. As much as I recommend this book, it is full of difficult stuff. So, choose your timing carefully. I’d hate for you to regret reading about Shuggie and Agnes.
Pair with another heartbreaker, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara or Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. Both are excellent books and have similar elements to Shuggie, but completely different writing styles and settings.