Illuminating look at lives in poverty and alcoholism

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a grim look at the lives of people in a squalid mining town.
Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a grim look at the lives of people in a squalid mining town.PHOTOS: MARTYN PICKERSGILL, PICADOR

When Hugh "Shuggie" Bain is five years old, his drunk mother Agnes calmly sets fire to the curtains in their room and clings to him as they burn, until his father rushes in to put it out.

Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart's debut is a relentlessly grim portrait of working-class life in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland, a city gutted by then-British premier Margaret Thatcher's Austerity policies.

Stuart, 44, who works in fashion design in New York, grew up on a Glasgow public housing estate and, like Shuggie, was the youngest son of an alcoholic single mother. She died when he was 16.

Of all the novels on the Booker shortlist, his is the most draining read. It is a faithful and unflinching record of the grind of poverty and the suck and drag of addiction, punctuated by sudden, dreadful flares of violence.

After the fire, Shuggie's family move from the cramped flat they share with Agnes' parents in Sighthill to Pithead, a squalid mining town where unemployment is rife, neighbours are routinely vicious and nobody bats an eyelid at the rampant domestic and sexual abuse.

The move is a nightmare for Shuggie, a sweet, sensitive boy who likes dolls and does not move like the other boys.

His difference marks him out from the beginning as a target of homophobia. He has no language for what he is except the insults thrown at him.

Though he is the title character, he often remains on the periphery of the novel, which devotes many pages to fleshing out the rest of his family.

There is his father Big Shug, a philandering, brutish cab driver; his sister Catherine, who marries young in her desperation to escape her family; and his brother Leek, who quashes his artist dreams beneath the hardened shell of survival.

But the core of the novel, the vortex it inexorably circles, is Agnes.

Beautiful, full of big dreams and drawn to self-destruction, she abandons her mild Catholic husband to elope with Shug, then deals with his cheating by hitting the bottle.



    By Douglas Stuart

    Picador/Paperback/433 pages/ $29.95/ Available at

    Rating: 4 Stars

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a grim look at the lives of people in a squalid mining town. PHOTOS: MARTYN PICKERSGILL, PICADOR

The novel shows both how fiercely she loves her child and how frighteningly easy it is for her alcoholism to tear that love to shreds.

Stuart renders the bleak neighbourhoods of Sighthill and Pithead and its inhabitants with a clear, loving eye, with particular attention to the colour of Glaswegian speech, although Agnes and Shuggie affect the Queen's English to distance themselves.

The writing can veer towards the melodramatic, especially in Stuart's tendency to use periods to break up speech: "Let Jamesy McAvennie hear. That his. Wife died on the. Road."

The narrative is so mired in misery that it is often a litany of suffering, an unending cycle of nasty gossip, ruthless bullying and attempts to surface from addiction only to slip back under again.

Yet there is no denying the power of its testament, its sheer determination to shine a light on often-overlooked lives in all their facets.

For all its heaviness, it ends on a moment of sublime lightness, as Shuggie, shrugging off the weight of his circumstances for a second, allows himself to dance.

If you like this, read: The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis, translated by Michael Lucey (Picador, 2014, translated 2017, $27.95, available from Eddy_EL), a grim, autobiographical novel about growing up queer below the poverty line in rural France.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2020, with the headline 'Illuminating look at lives in poverty and alcoholism'. Print Edition | Subscribe