Adjectives that come to mind when I think of Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: devastating, heartbreaking, ruthless, brutal, distressing. And yet, in the last sentence of the book, I glimpsed hope. The last sentence made me cry, the only time I shed tears despite all the shocking events of the previous 430 pages.
All those adjectives mean this book is not for everyone. Indeed, one member of Pocket Bookclub found the darkness too much and could not read past the first act of violence. The rest of us found a lot to talk about, perhaps as this is a book chock-full of flawed characters and moral ambiguity. We can recommend this book for book clubs who like a vibrant discussion. It is also a chance to drink vodka and IRN-BRU in a tea-cup, though I wouldn’t recommend it.
I find the difference between the US (left) and UK (right) covers fascinating. My cover is the UK one and it tells of a book about a lonely boy in a deteriorating urban landscape. Indeed, Glasgow is one of the book’s characters. “Rain was a natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial.” Shuggie, the boy, is on his own in many ways; shunned, friendless and raising himself. The US cover emphasises the relationship between Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. It is the decline of Agnes that defines Shuggie’s childhood. His love for her is constant and expressed with physical tenderness as portrayed in the cover image. Still, I like the UK cover better.
Stuart has created frail characters with depth that left me both railing with anger and willing to forgive appalling behaviour. There is Agnes, vain and firey, picking herself up over and over again.
“Every day with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.” Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart.
Big Shug Bain, the husband and father is close to being the villain of the book – if there is one (other than Eugene who engendered more hate from the Pocket Bookclub – but that is a spoiler). Shug betrays Anges in a myriad of ways. Even when he no longer wants her, he owns her.
“She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later.“ Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
And of course, sweet, forlorn, neglected Shuggie with his too posh accent, who would do anything for his mother
“She’d looked as happy as he could ever remember, and he was surprised how this hurt. It was all for the red-headed man. He had done what Shuggie had been unable to do.”Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
I had a fly on the wall feeling when I read this book. The action played out right in front of me, vivid as though I was in that cold Glasgow night. The narrator doesn’t pass judgment on the cast, what they do, or how they ruin lives. The reader is left to make up their own minds and somehow this placed me deep into the broken hearts of these characters.