Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

‘No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.’

Glasgow, 1992. We meet Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain working at a supermarket. He has just turned sixteen and is trying to combine schooling with a part-time job. He does not receive adult wages and struggles to keep his things neat in the boarding house where he lives. But Shuggie has dreams.

‘Tomorrow was something to look forward to.’

But what about the past? The story shifts back to 1981, to public housing in Sighthill, Glasgow, to Agnes Bain, Shuggie’s mother:

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.’

Unemployment is rife, housing is scarce. Agnes is used to getting what she wants, but it is never enough for her. She craves different, excitement, more. She left her first husband for Shug Bain (‘Big Shug’) a philandering taxi-driver and dreams of having her own house. Agnes is bored, and when she is bored, she drinks.

Things become worse when Shug moves her to Pithead in 1982. She is away from family and friends. Living in a house in an area mostly occupied by unemployed miners and their families. After her older children leave, Shuggie tries to look after her. He feels, as so many children in his situation feel, responsible. He is sure that he can make her better if only he tries harder. He knows how to help her:

 ‘Shuggie 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. He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.’

If Shuggie is 16 in 1992, then he can only be 6 in 1982. He is carrying the weight of responsibility for his mother and of being different from the other boys. Agnes makes a sad attempt to get one of her male neighbours to be a role model for Shuggie, trading in the only currency she has. To no avail.

This is a heartbreaking story of addiction and love. Agnes is not unaware of the impact of her drinking, but she is in the grips of an addiction. She manages to stay sober for a period, which makes her eventual relapse even harder to bear.

The best advice given to Shuggie is from his brother ‘Leek’ (Alexander):

‘Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better.  When the time is right you have to leave.  The only thing you can save is yourself.’

What does the future hold for Shuggie? I’d like to think that his story continues on, he acquires the education he wants and finds a place for himself.  He did his best for Agnes, but she was beyond help. Addiction is a devastating, destructive, sneaky condition. Especially alcoholism, where some vulnerable people can slide from acceptable social drinking into the abyss of dependency.

This is such a powerful novel with origins in Mr Stuart’s own experience. It’s a novel based in a sad, gritty reality.  It’s a novel that will stay with me.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith