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Shuggie Bain is a Memorable Story of Family, Class, Sexuality, and Hope

Shuggie Bain is a Memorable Story of Family, Class, Sexuality, and Hope

Author: Giancarlo Latta

January 26, 2021

One of 2020’s most celebrated books and the winner of this year’s Booker Prize, Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain is a moving and memorable story of family, class, sexuality, and hope, filled with captivating, difficult characters. The novel’s backdrop is a rainy 1980s Glasgow occupied by a shrinking industrial class: men hunger for work and sex while their wives take to the drink at home. Industry, pushed to the fringe by the rising middle class, is associated with masculinity itself; struggling families live in an “endless soap opera of mindless violence.”

Agnes Bain, in many ways the novel’s central character, comes from a Catholic family but leaves her Catholic husband for “Big Shug,” a Protestant. By the time their only child, Hugh (“Shuggie”) is six, Shug has become selfish and gluttonous and his virility too easily edges towards violence. He rarely sleeps at home, and Shuggie already understands the shame that comes with knowing the kind of man his father is. Agnes relies on the drink as a way of forgetting.

Most of Shuggie’s childhood and early adolescence is spent in gray, marshy Pithead, far from the city center, where out-of-work miners and their families live in the housing scheme beside the closed mine. Abandoned by Shug, who has started a new family, Agnes and her children (Shuggie and his older sister and brother Catherine and Leek, from their mother’s first marriage) are outsiders. To the wives who gather in the street to trade gossip and sip milky tea, Agnes—the “alky hoor”—dresses too nicely, wears too much makeup. Agnes looks down on them, too, their tangled hair and “mismatched bedding,” always conscious of status and aware of what class makes one deserving or undeserving of. But the miners’ wives also provide company and drink when both are scarce.

Catherine marries and moves away; Leek is withdrawn and often goes unnoticed, spending long days at work or filling his sketchbooks. Shuggie is a precocious and keen observer of the world—this makes its secrets visible to him but also sets in clear relief his own difference, his inability to fit in. Called a “poof” by the other children, he searches for signs, however small, of his masculinity, and practices walking and talking “like a real boy.” He is sensitive, too, to his mother’s approval— he is fiercely devoted to her and spends much of his time worrying over her happiness. 

For Shuggie, sources of shame are everywhere: his inability to be “normal,” his fatherlessness, his mother’s destructive alcoholism, the burden of which increasingly falls on him. Sick with the hope that she will “get better,” he fears coming home from school, never knowing what state he might find her in; he and Leek play an endless game of “who touched it last.” Attending AA meetings, Agnes spends a year sober, sparkling with kindness and hope; she meets Eugene, who she dreams will support her—a man to cook and clean for, a father to Shuggie. 

Agnes believes persistently in the possibility of a fresh start, clinging to her hope even after repeated disappointments—a quality Shuggie inherits and which he, too, clings to, though reality threatens again and again to swallow his mother whole. In her darker moments, Agnes wakes up mornings shaking and sick, scouring the house for half-filled mugs of lager left abandoned the night before. On the drink, she can become sad or angry or both, and sometimes imagines killing herself—sinking to the bottom of the bath “to wait for the Lord.”

Loneliness and melancholy fill the novel like damp air, but there are also moments of joy— glimpses of beauty and love in the brokenness— like several memorable scenes where Agnes turns on the radio and dances with Shuggie. Most days, Agnes can wake up and walk down the street with her head held high no matter what has happened the night before. But Stuart shows us how deep the gulf between who we are inside and who we are when we face the world can become. When do our opportunities to reinvent ourselves run out? When is it finally impossible to escape the cards we are dealt in life? And what happens when we look in the mirror and see that inner self— the one we thought we were hiding— staring back at us?

Stuart’s characters are so captivating, their humanity so richly realized, that we gaze into their inner selves fully and intimately. He approaches his serious subject with tenderness and compassion— powerful and palpable as the characters’ lives are in Stuart’s masterful treatment of them, we cannot help but take them into our hands.

Shuggie Bain
by Douglas Stuart
Grove Atlantic
Hardcover, 9780802148506, 448 pp.
October 2020

Giancarlo Latta photo

About: Giancarlo Latta

Giancarlo Latta is a violinist in the award-winning Argus Quartet. He has written for Strings and Listen magazines and the Classical Post, and lives in New York City.

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