I first saw Shuggie Bain on NPR’s Best Books of 2020 List. It also won the Booker Prize, and since I was ready to read some “real” literature, it seemed like a good choice. The story is of a working class boy growing up in the projects in Scotland with an alcoholic mother. I was a little worried when I saw the review by Kathryn A. Powers from Newsday. She said: “This is a hard, grim book, brilliantly written and, in the end, worth the pain which accompanies reading it.” She was not wrong, especially about the pain of reading it. This book is dark, with tragedy after tragedy and very little light.
The book begins with young Shuggie (nickname for Hugh) living with his grandparents, parents, sister, and brother in the family’s flat in Sighthill. His father was abusive to Agnes and is a philanderer, openly sleeping with a myriad of other women around town. His mother, Agnes, deals with this by drinking herself into oblivion and other completely dysfunctional behaviors.
One day, Shuggie’s father moves Agnes and the kids to Pithead, a run-down public housing scheme near Glasgow. It is very insular and isolated. They all had hopes for a new start with the promise of their own house, but all they find is unemployment and despair. Shuggie’s father almost immediately leaves Agnes for another woman. Agnes loses herself even further into alcohol, but now that their grandparents and father are gone, it’s up to the kids to deal with her.
To make matters worse, the neighborhood kids have labelled Shuggie a “poof,” and bully him mercilessly. The poor kid goes out to fields by himself to practice walking “normal” even though he doesn’t know what that means. One by one, Shuggie’s older siblings cannot stand their home life and take off as soon as they are able, leaving Shuggie alone with his mother.
There are small rays of light within this dark story. There are moments where Agnes is able to show her love for Shuggie. And there are short periods of sobriety. But in the end, Shuggie’s childhood and Agnes’s life are just a never ending stream of pain and dysfunction. There’s rejection, neglect, bullying, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, violent rape, and more.
***SPOILERS*** Perhaps there’s a little light at the end of this dark book when Shuggie has made it out of his house and is not an alcoholic himself. He finally gets a friend, Leanne, at the end of the book, who understands him better than most. However, his new circumstances are only positive when you compare them to where he came from. ***END SPOILERS***
This book was very well written and was exceedingly memorable. I read this book at least a few months ago, and so much of it is still fresh in my mind. However, it was so painful to read that I was relieved to finish it.
“He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.” (144)
“Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high.” (238)
“She was drinking to forget herself, because she didn’t know how else to keep out the pain and the loneliness.” (286)
“It was clear now: nobody would get to be made brand new.” (331)
You can find all my reviews on my blog.