Shuggie Bain is the debut novel by Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart. It tells the story of a boy named Shuggie Bain growing up in 1980s with his alcoholic mother in Glasgow, Scotland. The book won the 2020 Booker Prize and was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.
Shuggie is the youngest of the three children of Agnes Bain and has two half siblings—Leek and Catherine—from Agnes’ previous marriage. Agnes is a beautiful woman and frequently referenced as Elizabeth Taylor. She fancies better things in life. Shuggie’s philandering father, Big Shug, is a cab driver and mostly absent from his life, too. Things get exacerbated when Big Shug left the family for another woman. Unsatisfied with her life, Agnes tries to drown her sad life with alcohol. Weekly benefit money are used up for her drink rather than daily food. Regardless, for Shuggie, Agnes is his North Star.
Shuggie has also been struggling with his sexuality since young age. He gets bullied at school for being effeminate and called names by his neighbour kids and adults. He desperately wants to be a “normal” boy like other kids but people—even his sibling and father—think he is “no right”. Agnes supports her son, but her addiction is bigger than love and care for her son. Soon, Shuggie’s two elder siblings find their own ways to get away from home. He continues to take care of her with his unwavering love hoping she will get better one day.
With compelling storytelling and immersive characters, it is an absorbing read. Starkly descriptive about the struggling lives of working class people, too. Spanned nearly over 10 years, two-third of the story is about Agnes’s alcohol addiction. While I was reading it, I wonder should the novel be titled as Agnes Bain rather than Shuggie Bain. As I reached near the ending, I realised that Agnes’s narrative is important cause it has shaped Shuggie’s childhood and it will also shape his future life, too. It is one irremovable jigsaw piece of his incomplete life.
Shuggie Bain is one heartbreaking story of a dysfunctional family with evocative narrative yet several people could relate to this story. Out there in this world, there are many Agnes and Shuggies as well as Leeks and Catherines. Despite the suffocating life and the circumstances it has thrown at you, what matters in the end is, what you take from it and where you walk from there. This is absolutely an unforgettable book and @douglas_stuart did a sterling work for a debut novel.