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'Shuggie Bain' review: A boy's heartbreaking love for his mother

Glasgow, Scotland in the '80s is the setting

Glasgow, Scotland in the '80s is the setting for Douglas Stuart's "Shuggie Bain." Credit: Magnum Photo/Raymond Depardon

SHUGGIE BAIN by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press, 448 pp. $27)

“Shuggie Bain” is Douglas Stuart’s first novel, as intense and excruciating to read as any novel I have ever held in my hand.

Set in Glasgow and its declining surrounds from 1981 to 1992, it is the story of Shuggie Bain, a gentle boy, the light of whose life is his mother, Agnes, an increasingly disruptive alcoholic. When we meet Shuggie, he is 5 and living with his family with Agnes’ parents, Lizzie and Wullie, on the 16th floor in a high-rise housing estate. Also resident are Shuggie’s older sister, Catherine, who escapes early on, and his teenage brother Leek, whose artistic talent is wasted in training for a job in construction.

Finally, we have Big Shuggie Bain, our Shuggie’s father. He is Agnes’ second husband, a man for whom she left her first: Catholic, steady, accommodating and dull. To Agnes, “Big Shuggie Bain had seemed so shiny in comparison. … He had been vain in the way only Protestants were allowed to be, conspicuous with his shallow wealth, flushed pink with gluttony and waste.” A philanderer with a nasty mean streak, Big Shuggie had left his first wife and their four children to take up with Agnes, whom he now despises.

Agnes is, in fact, a real piece of work. Discontented, self-involved and snobbish, she is said to resemble Elizabeth Taylor, her good looks augmented by gleaming false teeth, diligently applied makeup and copious hair spray. She considers herself a cut above her neighbors, affecting a posh accent and dressing with care when she leaves the house, where she frequently explodes in drunken rage. After a final display of alcohol-fueled mayhem on Agnes’ part, Big Shuggie moves the family away into a council house adjacent to closed-down coal pits miles out of town.

It is a miserable place with a vista of “black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of all life." Most of the residents are unemployed, lost souls who squander their meager welfare payments on Bingo and Carlsburg Special Brew, its 9% alcohol content (at the time) a ticket to oblivion. Having plunked them all down in this world of despair, Big Shuggie vamooses to take up with another woman.

Little Shuggie is clearly gay, though mystified by his feelings and bewildered by his inability to fit in. He has an effeminate manner which exasperates his brother and disgusts his father, and he now suffers persecution from the neighborhood louts. (“’Wid ye get a load o’ that. Liberace is moving in!’”)

Meanwhile Agnes’ drunken exploits shame Shuggie and make him feel responsible for saving her. A prisoner of his mother’s demons, Shuggie misses school to keep her company, placates her, loves her urgently and takes a sick pride in what he sees as her dauntlessness. “Every day with the makeup 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.”

The heartbreaking futility of this, the boy’s perpetual state of anxiety and dread, is almost unbearable. Year after year, in one humiliating incident after another, the woman’s self-centeredness, desperation and degradation are displayed. It is grindingly, terribly real — and nearly too much.   

But this novel is as much about Glasgow as it is about Shuggie and his impossible mother. Still riven by ancient enmity between Protestants and Catholics, the city and its outskirts have now, in the Thatcher era, entered a more demoralizing phase of postwar deterioration and uselessness. “The bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springburn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs;” coal mining has virtually vanished, leaving the land “turned inside out, blackened and slagged.” Even the drunks are degenerating: “The auld Glasgow jakey was a dying breed — a traditionally benign soul that was devolving into something younger and far more sinister with the spread of drugs across the city.”

The book’s evocative power arises out of the author’s talent for conjuring a place, a time, and the texture of emotion, and out of its language which is strewn with a Glaswegian argot sodden with desolation and misery: “dreich,” “smirr,” “haar,” “stour,” “foustie,” “boak.” This is a hard, grim book, brilliantly written and, in the end, worth the pain which accompanies reading it.

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