Winner of The Booker Prize, 2020.
This is written traditionally: it’s not a stream of consciousness (Anna Burns’ The Milkman 2018 Booker prize; Marlon James’ The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015), it’s not multiform (George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo 2017 ?), and it’s not experimental (Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, 2019). Even the quotation marks are traditionally doubled.
What gives Shuggie Bain its uniqueness and makes it so place specific is largely due to the dialogue. Stuart writes 1980’s Glaswegian talk phonetically, and if you take the time to read it as intended, aloud, you get the unmistakable flavour of Glasgow: irreverent, rough, pragmatic, and laugh-out-loud funny. Of course it isn’t funny to the talkers; they’re just telling the truth. The dialogue rolls in your mouth like half-spent jelly beans. All the characters speak like this, except Shuggie. He speaks like a normal boy, which is ironic because he thinks of himself as so far from normal he could be from another planet.
It’s a story of decimated domesticity; a portrait of just how shit-awful human beings can treat the ones they’re supposed to love, and told in vivid, often startling language but always with hard-edged truth where parenting, for all its good, but loosely held, intentions, is no match for the stifling religion-laced society of poverty that only booze and drugs can soften, but of course never does.
It is a portrait of a family steered blindly by the mother, Agnes Bain, who really wants to be steered herself, and who flaunts with glamour, attracts men as easily as they abuse her, and looks down on her skinny unkempt down-at-heel neighbours who in turn, turn their noses up at her and wonder “who the bloody hell does she think she is?”
Her taxi-driving second husband, Shug, moves the family into a newish but too small tenement – but it has its own front door! – and then abandons them. Catherine the eldest who sees quick marriage as the only way out, to South Africa, and Leek, Alexander, the second from her first husband, who wants to better himself but can’t see how. Then there’s Shug’s own, Shuggie (Scottish diminutive for ‘Hugh’). He’s the softest and youngest Bain who is no right, a mammy’s boy with a rag doll called Daphne.
It turned to the summer holidays, and the road was hoaching with McAvennie children and their cousins and their cousins’ cousins. They were making the most of the two weeks of good west-coast weather, bouncing footballs off kerbs or riding bikes and screaming as they sent great mouse-coloured clouds of slag dust into the air. Shuggie wilted away from them. 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.
Shuggie practices his walking, to walk like a real boy, to try not to cross his legs when he walks, to try and make room for his cock, as Leek says he must, without his arms swishing as they do; he gets excited about things because his mother, Agnes, wants him to and then when they don’t turn out he’s learnt to accept it. Disappointment isn’t so bad if it’s familiar.
She’s sorry for him. “Why?” he asks. She says “I’m sorry you have a prick for a father.”
Agnes Bain is one of the most tragic, colourful, and alive novelistic characters I have read in a long time. She’s an attractive monster and the epitome of self-destruction. She hurls her stilettos as weapons, breaks windows with rubbish bins, and sets fire to curtains to get her way. Shuggie is her guardian angel and his fierce love for her ties him to her threatening to bring him down with her. She almost saves herself by joining AA, again, but then Eugene, a ruddy bear of a man, who might, she thinks, save her, takes her out, pours her a drink;
“Look, ah’m no trying to get ye drunk. Ah’m trying to have ye try a drink.”
“But why?” Agnes was suddenly very tired.
“Because … Because it’s what normal people do.”
… so she tries a drink, and falls back into her black hole again and becomes so not normal; his ardour wains and he disappears, leaving her desperation battling against her dignity when all she ever wants is another drink.
Whatever Agnes had done now, Shuggie couldn’t say, but they had filthy words for her. New names that sounded dank and foustie; woman’s words that put spittle on their lips and made sucking sounds like a boot in the coal slag. The imaginary moat Eugene had laid around the Bain house was gone now; he rolled it up as easily as a carpet when he left. Now the McAvennie weans hammered their feet against the locked door. They shouted all the familiar poncey names at him. They made slurping kissing noises, then they made sing-songs of kissing noises, and then started the dirty names again.
I’m aware that I might be putting you off because of the subject matter, but the writing supersedes this. It’s inventive, illustrative, surprising, and glorious. Highly recommended.
You can buy the book in various formats here.
Here is an interview with Douglas Stuart about Shuggie Bain from the Greenwich Library in March 2020 before the Booker mailstrom overtook him.
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