'Shuggie Bain', by Douglas Stuart (published by Picador)
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, this may well be the bleakest and saddest novel I have ever read. The Booker Prize used to be awarded annually to what the judges decided was the best novel of the year by a UK writer. More recently, for reasons that elude me, it was decided that the prize should go to the best novel in English published in the UK or Ireland by authors of any nationality. Inevitably, this has meant that American authors now dominate the longlist. 2020 has proved no exception. Of the six novels on the shortlist, no fewer than five are by American or American-based authors. The sixth is by a writer from Zimbabwe.
However, when the shortlist was published, the big surprise was over the omission of a novel everyone assumed was bound to be there. Hilary Mantel has already won the Booker twice – for the first two volumes of her hugely successful trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. A third success in 2020 with volume three, The Mirror & The Light
, seemed to be very much on the cards. However, the judges disagreed – perhaps feeling that the prize should not go automatically to a well-established author. That this may have been their view is supported by their decision to include four first novels in the six on the list.
is one of them, while Douglas Stuart is also one of the American-based authors. Born in Glasgow in 1976, and brought up in a working-class housing scheme, he left the city to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after graduating there he left the UK for good, settling in New York where he built a career in textiles and fashion design – mainly of men's clothes. He tells us that the house he grew up in in Glasgow was one devoid of books, but he himself was always a storyteller. Thus, writing fiction came naturally and in time he succeeded in establishing himself in the US as a short story writer for prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker
. Shuggie Bain
has been a long time in the making – no less than 12 years according to the author – but first published in America, it has been widely reviewed and highly praised.
So will it win the Booker Prize? Not having read any of the other nominated novels, I'm not really in a position to say. My sense is it is well worth a prize, but it would require the judges to be extremely bold to award it the Booker, and if they do, I have no doubt whatsoever that there will be instant controversy and many voices decrying their judgement. Why? Well, consider again my opening sentence.
is not an easy or even enjoyable read. Few of its over 400 pages raise a smile, while many shock and disturb. I admit there were times when I was beginning to think I could not finish it. But let me hasten to make it clear that this is in no way any kind of cheap and vulgar, deliberately provocative, horror story. Rather, it is a carefully crafted and structured work, consistently written with panache and many a well-turned phrase of this kind: 'her mind jumped like washing flapping on the line'. Stuart's narrative, with its small group of central characters and range of settings, is beautifully realised through the power and range of his language and style.
The novel opens in 1992 when the 15-year old Shuggie (halfway through, for the benefit of non-Glaswegian readers, Stuart finally lets slip that 'Shug' and 'Shuggie' are versions of 'Hugh') is living on his own in a tiny bedsit on the south side of Glasgow. He is working at the deli counter of a local supermarket. He hates the job he knows he has only because as a juvenile he can be paid less than an adult wage. He is thinking vaguely of applying for a hairdressing course at a local college. His bedsit is owned by a Pakistani woman and the other rooms in the tenement flat are let out to four other single men.
This morning, one of them tries to persuade Shuggie to join him spending his dole money. A sexual overtone is clearly present which Shuggie could take advantage of, but he refuses, saying he has a friend to meet. Some 400 pages later, the novel closes with that meeting with his friend Leanne and his discovery that her mother, much like his own, has become a homeless addict.
After its 1992 opening, the novel focuses on three locations: the Sighthill housing scheme in 1981 where Shuggie lived as a child; Pithead, a former mining village outside Glasgow in 1982 where the family are dumped by the elder Shug; and the city's East End to where Shuggie's mother manages to move in 1989. All the problems and difficulties that Shuggie experiences in all these locations emerge with terrifying clarity.
As you would expect, Stuart insists that his novel is a work of fiction, but equally allows that it draws heavily on his own experience of growing up in a cruelly deprived and violent area of Glasgow. As a result, some accounts of Shuggie Bain
suggest it is about a gay boy growing up in a brutally hostile environment. But Stuart himself, a gay writer, disagrees.
The reader quickly learns that Shuggie sees himself as different, not 'normal', as he puts it. He has nothing in common with the boys in his class at school – who regularly vilify him as a 'wee poofter'. He hates football and only pretends to play. He loves his sister's dolls and his collection of porcelain figurines, the stories of whose lives he has imagined. However, aged 15 at the end of the novel, he has in no sense 'come out' as gay. It is only in a quite separate short story called Found Wanting
that a 17-year-old Glasgow boy, placing a lonely-hearts ad in a magazine and meeting up with an older man, accepts the nature of his sexuality.
If Shuggie's latent homosexuality is only a minor theme of the novel, what is its major one? In Sighthill, Shuggie is living with Agnes his mother, Shug his father, Catherine his sister, Leek his brother, and his maternal grandparents. But all this is about to change. The narcissist Shug, one of the novel's several taxi-drivers, is planning to abandon his family and move in with one of his many girlfriends. To facilitate this, he insists on the move to Pithead, the poverty-stricken village blackened with the soot from the bings of its abandoned coalmine. The bleak ugliness of this place and its people is devastatingly conveyed.
Soon Catherine gets married and escapes to a new life in South Africa with her husband. Leek, apprenticed to some kind of plastering job, retreats more and more into his bedroom's private world of drawing and sketching and music. Eventually his mother forces him to leave. So Shuggie is left on his own with his mother Agnes. Around them is a working-class Catholic Glasgow world at its most broken and defeated. Bitter, angry, neglected, living off social security and the dole, abusing each other and their world in a violent Glaswegian patois, its people have nothing left but betting and boozing.
But Agnes chooses to have none of this. She is beautiful, her hair and make-up are always perfect. She dresses elegantly in a tight skirt, black tights and high heels, and as a result her 'normality' is hated by those around her as much as Shuggie's is by his schoolmates. Like Shuggie's, once again her correct standard English is vilified as 'posh'.
The title page of Shuggie Bain
is dedicated 'For My Mother', and Agnes is beyond question the dominating presence in the book. But from early on we suspect that Agnes has a problem. Soon its nature is all too clear. Like Stuart's own mother, Agnes is an addict, an alcoholic. Cans of Special Brew lager surround her – and on occasion a bottle of vodka does its job. Drunk, the proud Agnes becomes increasingly vulnerable, and there are plenty of men ready to take advantage.
So the novel's central theme becomes Shuggie's desperate love and compassion for his mother. Briefly, a man called Eugene – another taxi-driver – seems to offer Agnes the love and support she needs. For a time she remains sober, but Eugene turns out to be unable to live with a person who will always be an ex-alcoholic. Agnes must be a 'normal' person and join him in an after-dinner drink. She does so – with the inevitable result. So it is back to Shuggie, who has always loved to brush her hair, to do the caring, protecting, cleaning, feeding, dressing and undressing. His pain and anguish are hard to bear, and of course there is no happy ending. Not even if Shuggie Bain
wins the Booker Prize.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow