Shuggie Bain: Douglas Stuart

Published by Picador

Shuggie Bain is a compelling story about addiction and its fallout, set in the working-class community in Glasgow.

Shuggie Bain’s mother Agnes is an alcoholic. Shuggie’s father Big Shug, a taxi driver, is Agnes’s second husband. She has two children, Catherine and Leek, from her first husband.

Agnes and the children live in a small house in a poor community. Their neighbours are mostly former miners, but the mine has closed down, and the men don’t have much work. Agnes stands out from the minute she moves into their new home: a beautiful—and beautifully dressed—woman, she is completely unlike the miners’ wives. Agnes believes in trying to maintain a certain standard, no matter how bad things get.

And things do get bad. Big Shug doesn’t live with them, making Agnes the only adult in the house. She gets benefits and child support from the state but spends most of it on drink. Catherine leaves the family, moving to South Africa with her new husband, as far away from her mother as she possibly can.  

Things are not easy for Shuggie. He is gay, and the other children torment him for being different. Leek tries to protect him, but when he eventually leaves, Shuggie is left to handle everything by himself.

Agnes may be very far from perfect, but Douglas Stuart makes her a rounded character with her dreams and pain. Agnes is dissatisfied with her life and knows she can do better. She left her first husband because she “didn’t want to go back to a life she knew the edges of”. Her attempts at improving her life never work out, either because of self-sabotage or because of the men in her life. 

There are so many heart-breaking moments in the book. Leek, who withdraws into his art to escape the chaos around him, tracks down his father and stands outside his house, watching him with his happy family that is so unlike his own.

Shuggie gets stomach cramps before he leaves school, which is “the rising fear of what might lie at home”. He listens at the door before going in to prepare himself. Was his mother drunk? Was she unhappy or angry? Were there men visiting? The only sounds he trusts are of her in the kitchen or doing housework.

“Agnes had gotten sober many times before, but the cramps had never really, completely gone away. To Shuggie, the stretches of sobriety were fleeing and unpredictable and not to be fully enjoyed. … He had stopped counting a while ago. To have marked her sobriety in days was like watching a happy weekend bleed by: when you watched it, it was always too short.”

Stuart does not spare the details of what it is like to live with an alcoholic parent: the lies, the mess, and most of all, the constant tension. And the way addiction can completely take over lives, not just the addict’s but those close to her, depriving the children of a childhood. When Leek finally leaves, he tells Shuggie to keep back some of the money she receives so he can buy food. “Shuggie wanted to say he already did that. That he had done that since he was seven.”

The book is about the bond between Shuggie and Agnes. He is the one child who refuses to give up on her, believing that if he could only be stronger and support her better, she would get better. This relationship destroys Shuggie, turning him into a watchful, quiet boy, mistrustful of others.

I found it unrelenting. During the few light moments, I kept dreading that something was going to go wrong.  

In an interview with the Irish Times,[1] Stuart said, “When you grow up as a child of trauma, you have no control over that. Especially when it’s a parent suffering from addiction, it’s really a black hole, and you’re just whipped around it, trying to cope. So if you can take that trauma and turn it into art, and take control over it as fiction, it’s an incredibly powerful place to be in.”

In Shuggie Bain, Stuart has taken the trauma and turned it into an incredibly powerful book.


[1] John Self, 24 November 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/douglas-stuart-on-writing-shuggie-bain-it-was-a-difficult-process-1.4417013

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