You know, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know exactly what Shuggie Bain was about before I started reading. I can think of occasions in the past when simply discovering the theme of a book – A Little Life, My Absolute Darling – has been enough to put me off even trying it, despite the fact that the writing has been praised by critics and readers alike. So if I’d known I was about to embark on a novel depicting alcoholism, rape, domestic violence and child sexual abuse, there’s no WAY on earth I would have gone anywhere near it. And I would have missed out on one of the most affecting, haunting and all-round superb books of 2020.
Set in Glasgow in the 1980s and 1990s, Shuggie Bain tells the almost unbearable story of Agnes Bain and the three children who, as the years go by, bear the brunt of the addiction that slowly dismantles their mother piece by piece. Shuggie is the youngest, and it’s he who frames the novel; we first meet him as a teenager living an independent yet pretty dismal and unfulfilled life at the very start of the book, before going back in time to his early years and following him as he grows up amid the wreckage of a family that’s breaking apart. The neglect, poverty and unpredictability of living with an alcohol-dependent parent are not the only things he has to deal with: as the book progresses and Shuggie grows older, he can’t shake the sense that he is different from the other children and doesn’t fit in. He is bullied and mocked – by adults as well as other children – and finds himself more and more alone, escaping to imaginary worlds that he creates for himself during the lonely days when he can’t face school and can’t face home.
If outside world is hostile, home holds just as many terrors. One of the most striking elements of the story is the way addiction instills fear in the sufferer’s loved ones. Is Shuggie’s mother going to be drunk or sober when he gets home from school? If she’s been drinking, is she going to be celebratory, vindictive or despairing? If she’s drunk but still cheerful, can Shuggie stop her drinking herself to the next stage of intoxication, the stage of anger and recrimination? I can’t remember the last time my heart broke so completely when reading a book as it did when I watched this little boy taking care of his inebriated mother in a way far beyond his years, desperately trying to keep further alcohol out of her reach, trying to distract her from her destructive whims and reacting with devastating practicality when she finally loses consciousness.
So far you might imagine that Agnes Bain would be an extremely unlikeable character – after all, what kind of parent would put their child through this? If I had to put my finger on the area in which the novel most excels (hard to do when it’s amazing in so many ways) I’d say it’s in the way Douglas Stuart manages to keep us on side with characters who could at first glance be incredibly unappealing. Yes, Agnes is an alcoholic whose children go hungry so she can feed her habit and whose youngest son is left vulnerable to abuse because she isn’t there to look out for him; but the things we see her go through in her own life are equally shocking. Her second husband is brutish, violent and unfaithful. Her relationship with her parents is not straightforward; she is no stranger to physical violence from that quarter. The other men she encounters while she is at her most vulnerable range from outright abusive to unreliable and enabling. I doubt there’s a single reader who’d be unable to feel sympathy for Agnes at least at some point during the story.
Calling the novel a social commentary makes it sound a bit dull and dry, and that’s absolutely not the case, but I did feel there was a hugely important wider point behind the minutely observed individual stories. Poverty and a lack of opportunity traps not just Agnes but entire communities; small wonder, then, that addiction and other substance abuse become one of the few escapes available. To say the book’s message is that Agnes’s alcohol dependency is a direct result of social policy would be a massive oversimplification, but the seeds of the argument are certainly there if you feel inclined to read the book in that way. Personally, this more “political” aspect is something that struck me very strongly and haunted me for some time afterwards: it’s all too easy, from a position of privilege, to pass judgement on others who haven’t had access to the opportunities we’ve had, and to make assumptions about what might be called their “life choices” – when in fact they have almost no choice at all.
So how does this book remain in any way readable with all its bleakness and tragedy? The answer for me is quite simply, Shuggie. No matter what happens, you read on, and you read on for Shuggie. You get through it with him and for him, and you feel as if by reading his story you’re somehow there holding his hand through the worst of times. And strangely, when it ends, although there’s no denying you’ve been put through the wringer emotionally, you’re not left with a sense of despair – because Shuggie loves his mother no matter what, and it’s that love that cuts through the novel’s darkness and provides a tiny, but absolutely crucial, light.
I prefer to recommend rather than beg, but this time I’m begging shamelessly! You won’t just read this book, you’ll live it; so please, try it – let it get under your skin and into your head, and appreciate the awesome power of what a book can do.