Booker Prize winning 'Shuggie Bain' by Douglas Stuart is full of Sweet Pain
Shuggie Bain may be a bitter pill to swallow but it leaves a sweet after-taste that makes you want to go back for more. It is a novel about addiction, poverty, and loss but it is also about love, compassion, and kindness. Douglas Stuart’s debut novel won the Booker Prize in 2020. Stuart was born in Glasgow and he bases his protagonist, the eponymous Shuggie Bain’s story there.
The concepts of time and space are central to this novel. The chapters are divided between years and places of Shuggie Bain’s life. Stuart breaks away from the linear narrative with a harsh wintry present in which we are transported to a chilly inner-city Glasgow. This classic pathetic fallacy highlights the young protagonist’s grief and loneliness. And naturally, we hope that as we read further, this cold turns into warmth. Spoiler alert. But, It never does. Instead, in the next 430 pages of this novel, we begin to see the life of a family riddled with abuse and poverty.
Glasgow’s biting cold is a constant reminder of Shuggie Bain’s brutal present and equally destitute past. This really demonstrates the abject nature of poverty, and addiction; two themes that are pertinent in this novel.
Shuggie’s life is governed by abuse, poverty, and addiction; this really demonstrates the sense of being trapped in a cycle that one cannot escape or break.
The novel is written from a third person's point of view. And, the omnipresent narrator provides a window into the minds and lives of Agnes (his mother), Catherine (his step-sister), Leek (his step-brother), and Shug (his father).
Agnes as a character is rendered with a stereoscopic view. Her addiction to her unhealthy marriage with Shug, and her ability to choose drugs and alcohol over herself and her children is a disheartening discovery. She is a woman dependent on substances, government payrolls, and her toxic relationship with Shug. Stuart has written Agnes’ character wonderfully; her impulsiveness is infuriating; however, her helplessness to overcome a toxic marriage and drugs is heart-breaking.
While we root for Agnes, all of Douglas Stuart’s women have a kind of homogeneity. The women in this story are all described to be unruly either because they’re too fat and lumpy or too skinny and anemic. Their physicality is rendered in extremes. Almost all of them are dependent on the men in their lives. Agnes’ neighbor Colleen takes her husband back even though he has been alarmingly unfaithful towards her and Agnes’ daughter Catherine only looks forward to marriage so she can escape the hostile environment at home. Stuart takes away their sense of individuality. The female characters lack the agency that I would hope a 21st century novel could highlight.
In contrast to Agnes’ disruptive personality, is her son and our protagonist, Shuggie Bain. Douglas Stuart cleverly assigns the most powerful dialogues to the youngest character in his novel.
“So if your body doesn’t go to heaven, it doesn’t matter if another boy did something bad to it in a bin shed, right?”
These words dialogues are twice as hard-hitting since they come out of the mouth of a young and rather helpless little boy. Shuggie, or ‘Hugh’, even though he gets his name from his Father, is almost nothing like him. If Shug is the perpetrator of violence, Shuggie is often the victim. Not only emotionally, by his parents, but also sexually by strangers. If Shug always tries to hurt Agnes, Shuggie always tries to love her. The youngest protagonist has been subjected to the most brutal kinds of violence, this makes the novel even more heartbreaking -- but we are forced to read on, hoping that young Shuggie grows up and out of this toxicity.
Shug, who drives a taxi for a living easily fits into the role of the villain. His hyper-masculine personality makes one cringe when one isn’t fuming at him, and even angry. But the hatred towards him paves the way for sympathy towards the other members of the family, who have to suffer the consequences of his wrath. Besides his wife, there is Catherine, the innocent one and Leak, the talented artist. We watch as the novel paints them into corners as they slowly crumble under the pressures of poverty.
There are no happy endings, no easy solutions. This book does not need them. If it inflicts more pain than it assuages, well then that was never the deal, was it?