In 1980s Glasgow, poverty is on the rise during the Thatcher-era. The lives people dreamed of has disappeared. Agnes Bain, however, has always had great expectations. She has dreamed of her own house, fancy clothes and decor, and a life that has been paid for outright without having to work for it. It’s why she leaves her first husband because he’s just not enough. But when second husband – a violent, manipulative & cheating man – finally leaves, she & her three children, Catherine, Leek & Shuggie find themselves trapped in a dying mining town. Agnes turns to alcohol for comfort during all this time & while her children try to help her, they eventually leave to save themselves. Except for Shuggie. Shuggie has his own problems & struggles to be a ‘normal boy’ & while Agnes wants to protect him, alcohol is far more powerful. Shuggie wants to save his mother but how can he save himself?
This book! It’s a whopping 420 pages but a story so compelling, you can’t put it down. I’m usually cautious with major prize-winning novels but this didn’t disappoint. While the title is reserved for Shuggie, much of the novel explores Agnes – her addiction, her need to present herself well, her wants & dreams. Shuggie is a child but has had to grow up quickly to ensure his mum is safe. Agnes can be a mean drunk or a sad drunk. Shuggie & his siblings figure out her patterns & look after her accordingly. It’s heartbreaking to see the children struggle with their mother’s addiction & their father’s manipulation. You might think Agnes is an easy character to hate but honestly, you feel so much compassion towards her. I wanted to dislike her but as time went on, I couldn’t. Stuart has ensured you see how the alcohol is far more powerful than you can imagine.
Stuart lets you hope amidst the bleak setting. And maybe that’s what Agnes represents all along. Despite her addiction, despite the poverty, amidst those grandiose dreams, was hope. I wanted to hold Shuggie & Leek & protect them from the world. I wanted to keep them safe. I wanted them to have a promising future. There are sections you want to read out loud thanks to the Scottish accent/language.
Read this book to have your heart broken but also, to feel deep compassion & a sense of hope. Read it to know how messy families are & how love can still exist. Just. Read. It.
She was drinking to forget herself, because she didn’t know how else to keep out the pain and the loneliness.Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, p. 324