My mother is in every page of this book… stated Douglas Stuart on winning the 2020 Booker Prize with his haunting debut novel, Shuggie Bain.
Based on Stuart’s own story, a lonely effete young boy tries valiantly to emotionally support his alcoholic mother. Abandoned by her second husband and two older children from a first marriage, the once beautiful and sassy Agnes Bain slowly self destructs. Only her youngest, Shuggie, has a naive, steadfast faith – frequently abused – in her. Living in a perpetual state of anxiety, this is a boy whose unconditional love for his mother is such that he leaves a bucket beside her bed should Agnes vomit as well as arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork.
With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive.
The 1980s Glasgow streets of overcrowded inner city tenements and concrete; distant run down public housing estates isolated on the periphery; unemployment, poverty, decrepitude along with loss of hope and self-respect loom large as Shuggie tries to find his safe place. With his preference for dolls and mammy’s company, that’s never going to be easy in the rough, tough immediacy outside the front door. Avoiding school and other kids becomes his norm.
It’s a slow demise for Agnes in Thatcherite Scotland, unceremoniously dumped by husband Shug with her three kids in a ground floor apartment on the edge of the city. The party girl, indulged as a child by her father, now finds herself in the shadows of a closed down coalmine and an insular, judgemental community. Lonely, isolated, impoverished, in her fragile reality Agnes turns more and more to drink – and predatory men.
Daughter Catherine soon gets out, marries and emigrates to South Africa. It’s left to Leek and Hughie to deal with Agnes. She is proud and full of love yet, with drink inside her, their mother is boorish, manipulative and occasionally violent until she passes out. This is a world of cashing the weekly benefits on Monday, raiding the gas and electricty metres on Thursday and going hungry on Sunday. But there’s always Special Brew or the last dregs of vodka in the house. Despite occasional periods of sobriety that give the boys hope, her addiction continues to spiral out of control. Unable to take any more, Leek moves out. At the age of 12 or 13, Shuggie is left alone to cope.
Shuggie Bain never gives up on his mother, no matter how many times she let’s him down. Promising to remain sober for the move to a new home in inner-city Glasgow, she is drunk by lunchtime. An inebriated mother and finding himself once again the butt of gay jokes at his new school, a deeply saddened Shuggie finally recognises that Agnes’ mantra we can be brand new rings hollow.