Douglas Stuart ‘Shuggie Bain’

Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Shuggie Bain”: In order of reading book number 1.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


I said to him well I’ve got two grown boys at home to feed an’ they cannae find any work either so what do you suggest I do about that? He looked at me and he didn’t even blink when he said try South Africa”. She closed the bag, “they’ve never even been to south Lanarkshire never mind South Africa”. She kept rubbing her red thumb. “It ain’t right, the government should do something, shutting down the iron works and the ship building, it’ll be the miners next you watch, South Africa, never! Go all the way to South Africa so that they can build cheap boats there and send them home to put more of our boys out of work, a shower of swine”.
“It’s diamonds” Shugg offered “they go to South Africa to mine diamonds”. The woman looked as if he had contradicted her.
“Well I don’t care what they mine they could be pulling liquorice out of a black man’s arse for all I care, they should be working here at home in Glasgow and eating their mammies cooking.”


Common themes in the selected books this year seem to be the relationship between generations and hardship, here Douglas Stuart takes us back to Glasgow between the seventies and eighties, a city hard hit by the closure of the traditional industries as illustrated in the opening quote between the taxi driver Shugg and a customer. The story seen through the eyes of Shuggie, the youngest son of Agnes and Shugg. He plunges us into the life of the Bains familly which faced with poverty in Glasgow is blown apart by the mother, Agnes’s drink problem, which we visit in frightening everyday detail:


To Agnes Sue-Ellen Ewing was like her reflection but maybe in a fun house mirror she could relate to the alcoholic character and every time she was drunk on the screen Agnes would make a tutting noise and say to Leek “well that’s just like me isn’t it” then she would giggle through chocolaty false teeth. The fake glamour of Sue-Ellen’s tragedy made it look almost enviable. Agnes would tell the tv “it’s a disease you know” and “the poor lassie cannae help it”. Shuggie watched the actress tremble her bottom lip with fake emotion. The whole thing was a pile of lies, where was the head in the oven and the house full of gas? Where were the tears and the half dressed uncles and the sister who would never come home? The curtains lay open and the orange lights came on all over the scheme, Dallas finished and the street began to empty of wains.


The husband and father Shugg, a womaniser, manages to get a council house to rent through a fiddle. The house is in a dessolate pit town just outside of Glasgow where there is no work and everyone seems to be related. Shugg drops them of at their new house and immediately leaves them, not to come back. There is no way out, Agnes and Shuggie stand out. Agnes who no matter what her state dresses as if to go out, the drinking doesn’t initially stand out. Shuggie who on arrival is in primary school, well he just isn’t like the other boys is he? he wishes he was but his favourite toys are long haired coloured ponies whose hair he can brush.

Agnes has a habit she has to feed and with thirty five pounds child support per week, after the drink there isn’t much left for eating, because of his age, Shuggie isn’t a completely reliable narrator, as he and we find out, first his eldest sister leaves home as soon as she can and moves to South Africa never coming back, then his brother Leek leaves home as soon as he can after an argument with Agnes. Agnes is full of anger when she has been drinking and then turns to the phone to call and insult people, with the rapid change in mood when she wakes and the drink has worn off. Then it is Shuggies turn, Shuggie who does everything to help his mother discovers that she can’t live with him or anyone else in her house. When he gets to fifteen years old and she throws him out, he supposes it was probably this way around for his brother.


He believed that if he could fill her every moment with noise then maybe she could stay away from the drink. He stood outside of the bathroom as she peed he told her of the pheasants that Danny tripped with sleeping pills he climbed into her cold bed at night and read non stop as she lay awake, when she could take no more Agnès filled him full of milk of magnesia and was relieved when he was loosened up enough to go back to class.


Douglas Stuart instills in us the way alcohol can tear people apart, the alcoholic and all of the people around them. Shuggie’s life is like Chinese water torture. This book is without hope.

First Published in English as “Shuggie Bain” by Picador in 2020

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