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A novel of poverty, abuse and addiction in 1980s GLASGOW

2nd March 2021

Shuggie Bain by  Douglas Stuart, a novel of poverty, abuse and addiction in 1980s GLASGOW.

A novel of poverty, abuse and addiction in 1980s GLASGOW

Hugh – ‘Shuggie‘ – Bain is a funny wee lad. ‘He’s no right‘, people even start to say to Agnes, Shuggie’s Mum. But Agnes loves alcohol more than the youngest of her three children, and can’t look out for Shuggie as much as she probably should.

Shuggie Bain won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2020 but isn’t the easiest of reads, laying bare a life of poverty, abuse and addiction in and around Glasgow in the 1980s. In Shuggie and Agnes in particular, however, author Douglas Stuart has created memorable literary characters who become seared into the reader’s soul.

The substance of the story begins in Sighthill. It’s 1981. Agnes is 39, Shuggie is still but a wean, sister Catherine and brother Alexander – Leek – are teenagers and they’re sharing a high-rise apartment with Lizzie and Wullie, Agnes’s Mum and Dad. Big Shug, Agnes’s second husband, is a philandering taxi driver and the writing is already on the impoverished wall:

He was a selfish animal, she knew that now, in a dirty, sexual way that aroused her against her better nature. It showed in the way he ate, how he crammed food into his mouth and licked gravy from between his knuckles without caring what anyone thought. It showed in how he devoured the women leaving the card party. These days it was showing too often.

And sure enough, Big Shug leaves to set up home with Joanie Micklewhite as soon as he’s dumped Agnes and the kids into a wee place on the bleak, post-industrial Pithead housing scheme. Agnes finds willing accomplices there to help in her quest for oblivion:

‘”Stay here with us, and we’ll hae a wee welcome drink to oorsels. “Bridie drew a large, clear bottle from behind one of the fence posts. She tossed the contents of her tea mug into the street and shook the vodka bottle . “Why don’t ye come over here and tell us all about yersel?”‘

Catherine escapes to live in South Africa as soon as she can, and when Agnes throws artistic Leek into the street, Shuggie is the only one left to help his Mum paper over the cracks of her disintegration. Still not yet even a teenager, he also has to cope with physical and mental abuse at school, as his sexuality and fortitude are questioned.

Eugene, another taxi driver, brings some brief hope to Agnes and a shaft of optimism for Shuggie, when she manages to kick the booze for a year. But normal service is resumed with a vengeance, at Pithead and after they’ve moved into an East End tenement block ‘that felt like a thriving hub of life after the isolation of the slag hills.’

In the silence he listened to her cough through the stupor, then she wretched and a trickle of thick bile appeared on her lips. Shuggie reached inside her jumper sleeve and took out her toilet paper, carefully enough not to wake her. With a practiced finger he reached inside her mouth and hooked out the bronchial fluid and bile. He wiped her mouth clean and lowered her head safely back on to her left shoulder.’

Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, taking the author 10 years to write and only published after rejection by 32 publishers. It’s a pretty unrelentingly bleak read, broken only by brief flashes of dark comedy and false hope.

Stuart says it’s not an autobiography, but admits it leans heavily on his own childhood. It will be interesting to see what and who follows Shuggie from the writer’s pen.

For lovers of TripFiction, Shuggie Bain undoubtedly evokes a palpable sense of living in and around Glasgow in the Thatcher era, though it’s probably not one the Tourist Board would like to use in its marketing campaigns:

The housing scheme spread out suddenly before them. Ahead, the thin dusty road ended abruptly into the side of a low brown hill. Each of the three or four little streets that made up the scheme branched horizontally off this main road. Low-roofed houses, square and squat, huddled in neat rows. Each house had exactly the same amount of patchy garden, and each garden was dissected by the identical criss-crossing of white washing lines and grey washing poles. The scheme was surrounded by the peaty marshland, and to the east the land had been turned inside out, blackened and slagged in the search for coal.’

Andrew for the TripFiction team

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