By – Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is a superb story that is essentially in three parts. In the first and final parts we meet Shuggie after he has physically escaped the events of the lengthy middle portion.
The bulk of the main story concerns Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, an alcoholic and struggling to control her alcoholism, bring up three children, experience some sort of life, realise her hopes and ambitions, and negotiate the people around her. Her love for kids is manifest but she and they are doomed by drink, vicious neighbours and an absence of any true friends. She meets a man she liked but even he betrays her in the most convincing & destructive way.
The author has set the novel in an eighties Scotland and tried to create a social environment in which Shuggie’s family tries to live. Agnes’ strong desire to do or achieve something to rise out of her poverty and degradation are thwarted time and again by her alcoholism, uncaring – even absent- local and national governments, and by a cold society isolating & degrading her along with her family. Logically, this extremely unpleasant environment did not just spring up with the new government; it had been festering for years. Agnes didn’t have a chance.
In the middle of this situation (full of problems) we find Shuggie, a decent, seemingly doomed boy striving to cope with and care for his loving but incapable and progressively worsening mother as well as negotiate both his emerging sexuality and the pitfalls of simply growing up. The warmth of his mother, and her guilt over his plight, the convincingly well masked affection of his brother, are clearly drawn in description as well as appropriately gritty language. I felt I was listening to the voice of deprived and struggling Glaswegians.
The landscape and emotional life of the book are stark & bleak but the superb quality of the written language in its ordinary form carries the reader through to the final section. This is a narrative novel. It does have a kernel of redemptive seed to it. Three quarters through, Shuggie goes to cash a benefit book for mother. The regulation-spouting cashier considers refusing to oblige but eventually pays when the queue becomes impatient. As she does so, she dispenses a few words of wisdom representing the only real hope Shuggie really has. It’s a crucial scene, all the more poignant because the cashier – however distantly – represents callous officialdom.
Towards the end there is a tragicomic development when an acquaintance invites Shuggie along to makeup numbers on a date (of sorts!) A beam of hope under a louring Glasgow sky. Is the hope realised? I won’t spoil it.
Shuggie Bain : By – Douglas Stuart