Book six of my challenge and one from my original list and as you can tell I am really enjoying my audiobooks these days.
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.
Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.
Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist with a powerful and important story to tell.
There is something quite unusual about this book in the fact that it is quite a hard and heavy read but it is also a story that I couldn’t tear myself away from, I expected that I would feel quite despondent after reading because I knew from the outset that there would be some difficult topics covered but somehow came away from the story feeling glimmers of hope and a ridiculous amount of love for Shuggie.
Even though it is a bleak setting in many respects there is a real vibrancy of place, the rich description of Glasgow and its characters jump off the page and engaged me fully. This is a portrayal of life at its hardest but I still managed to find some joy in certain moments, the dark humour that I found with some of the women in the story or a situation that feels very familiar, I do wonder though whether that is because Glasgow is my hometown or if that is something that other readers will pick up on.
Shuggie is a character that I couldn’t help but have a soft spot for, he has an innocence and vulnerability that is so endearing especially considering his circumstances. I love that he was such a stark contrast to the rest of the characters, he has to contend with being different to all of those around him and has to know when to reveal the more real aspects of his nature and when to hide them, but it was his positivity that things would get better that really made him stand out. I have to say I know she isn’t a perfect person but I have a lot of empathy for Agnes, even when she is at her worst she still has some of the qualities that attract others to her and even though it was a heartbreaking journey and I knew how it would end, I kept hoping for both Agnes and Shuggie’s sake that she could turn herself around.
The narrator Angus King was fantastic, he really captured the atmosphere of the story and brought the setting and characters to life. I think what I appreciated most about this format was that it gave me a real sense of home, I felt like these were people I knew or knew of and I cherished the feeling of kinship.
Shuggie Bain is not an easy book to read but it is a rewarding one with characters and a story that will stick with you long after you have put it down, a remarkable debut.