Review: Shuggie Bain
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Kirsten Provan reviews this semi-autobiographical novel about a young Glaswegian boy growing up in the Thatcher era, which explores oppression towards women, the working class, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is tipped to win the 2020 Booker Prize. But that’s not why you should read it. You should read it because it’s a Scottish tour de force with an anorak-wearing protagonist for the ages.
The novel follows Shuggie, from young boy to teenager, charting his attempts to survive 1980s Glasgow with a broken, alcoholic mother and the ever-increasing weight of his own difference. This is a book in which the kids very much aren’t alright and the parents aren’t doing so well themselves either. Functioning like Scottish Billy Elliot but without the crowd-pleasing ending and toe-tapping soundtrack, Shuggie Bain is a novel that holds nothing back.
Being a Scottish text, the dark, sarcastic humour comes in droves. Whether it’s teenage, supermarket-worker Shuggie bitterly fantasising about spearing his rudest customers and roasting them like rotisserie chickens or the image of young Shuggie’s desperate, frantic dance moves, there is comic relief hidden here. However, sometimes it’s hidden deep within and the moments of Shuggie Bain that are without humour are often very heavy indeed. The novel is semi-autobiographical, with Douglas Stuart himself having grown up in Glasgow and faced many of the same issues and prejudices as his young protagonist. Readers be warned, there is a fair amount of violence and suffering throughout but Stuart seems committed to telling the most accurate tale he can, warts, bruises, and all.
Functioning like Scottish Billy Elliot but without the crowd-pleasing ending and toe-tapping soundtrack, Shuggie Bain is a novel that holds nothing back.
It’s a story about a boy whose only friend is his mother, their relationship acting as the emotional through-line of the novel. What is so heartbreaking is that however much the mother loves the boy, a lifetime of poverty and abuse has worn her down and forced her to look for an escape at the bottom of several lager bottles, as well as a few half bottles of vodka for good measure.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: this is not a happy book. If you’re looking for escapism, sunshine, and rainbows, I would not recommend. It is raw and unflinching. It is at times quite disgusting. Frequent, rambling descriptions of the colour and texture of phlegm were really not something I was missing from my fiction and yet, for some reason, Stuart goes to town. Indeed, at times, perhaps because of the abundance of phlegm, the book is quite difficult to swallow. We very much get bogged down in the doom and gloom of working-class life. The journey through poverty, sadness, and aggression screams the failures and inhumanity of the Thatcher era. Through the exploration of alcoholism, abuse, sexism, and homophobia, we see how those working-class men emasculated by the state sought less powerful individuals (namely, women and the LGBTQ+ community) to assert their dominance and maintain the illusion of superiority. Stuart perfectly outlines how we as humans will always find ourselves punching down.
The journey through poverty, sadness, and aggression screams the failures and inhumanity of the Thatcher era.
While this novel does offer a heart-breaking and all-too-familiar LGBTQ+ storyline, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Shuggie Bain is queer or not. The people surrounding him don’t know him and they don’t care to know him. He is looked upon by everyone around him as ‘no right’ because he prefers to play with dolls and cares about the way he looks. Though the book is set in the 80s and 90s, it serves as a stark reminder for how gendered society still is.
I’d forgotten what hope was as I neared the end of this book. There was no way you could have convinced me that there was any light at the end of that dark, dark tunnel. However, the note the book ends on completely changed how I felt about the entire thing. Somehow in that very last sentence, Stuart manages to turn a book that I felt was important and thought-provoking but nonetheless bleak and joyless into something profoundly moving. As I put the book down, came out of that world, and allowed myself to feel it, I realised that Shuggie Bain had my heart firmly in his grasp.
As I put the book down, came out of that world, and allowed myself to feel it, I realised that Shuggie Bain had my heart firmly in his grasp.
Wee Shuggie Bain is certainly one of those great literary characters that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your days. He is someone you want to protect; someone you want to keep safe; someone you want so much more for. But, against all the odds, his constant failure to be anything other than his whole, true self is something that will make you proud to have known him for those four-hundred-and-thirty pages.
Kirsten is a Creative Writing MSc student at the University of Edinburgh.