“Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

While the McAvennies played with new bikes and enjoyed a visit from Big Jamesy, Shuggie sat by her feet like a quiet shadow. He watched without talking while she drank from the bottomless tea mug. She told him bad stories of his father again, picking up the tale like it was a book she had only set to the side for a year. 
By the time the six o’clock news was finished she was sitting on her bed slurring into the phone to Jinty McClinchy. Shuggie slid quietly along the hallway and sat with his back pressed against her bedroom door. From there he could listen through the chipboard and could follow the bell curve of her worsening mood. He wondered how long it would be till she passed out, till he could have a rest.
( p. 304)

By the time the ceilidh band was in full swing he knew she would not be coming home. The revellers start to hug one another and break into song. He felt like a baby to miss his mother. It wasn’t fair, the way everyone could up and leave as they pleased.
( p. 309)

Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain has had a dream beginning as an author. It has been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. It is labelled as a novel but Douglas Stuart makes it clear that a large part of it is based on his life as well. So it is not exactly a memoir as he has used fiction to write about his childhood. He discusses it beautifully in this conversation recorded with Damian Barr during the Edinburgh Book Festival 2020. Both the authors have written “memoirs”. While Damian Barr is clear that his Maggie & Me is a memoir, Douglas Stuart is equally clear that large portions of Shuggie Bain are based on his life including the detail about the alcoholic mother but it remains a work of fiction.

Damian Barr and Douglas Stuart in conversation, 26 Aug,
Edinburgh Book Festival 2020

Shuggie Bain is the story of young Shuggie Bain who watches his alocholic mother, Agnes, destroy her life and family. It is a sad, sad tale. It is also extraordinary how Shuggie Bain manages to retain some kind of empathy and affection for his mother throughout the narrative. Shuggie is the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. So with his parents marriage across sectarian lines is sufficient cause for being alienated by society but he is also bullied in school. His father, Shug Bain, is a taxi driver and a philanderer. He is completely irresponsible and soon leaves his family for another. Shuggie Bain is also the youngest of his siblings who is left at a very young age to be in charge of their ailing mother. He takes care of her, her medication, her food, he manages the household finances etc. He even has to manage the many men who drift in and out of his mother’s life. It is a brutal and violent world but he undertakes his responsibilies uncomplainingly. He seeks his older brother’s assistance but the awful truth is that their mother will never recover and her children need to move on with their lives. His brother Leek leaves.

Shuggie Bain took Douglas Stuart more than ten years to write. The first draft was over 900 pages long. But Douglas Stuart chose to write it whenever he had the opportunity. He was determined to use fiction to help him face some of the pain he had experienced in his childhood. Yet there are moments in the book where the descriptions of an impoverished neighbourhood, the people drifting about, the gatherings of the women in each other’s home and the many details that are used to create the various images of Agnes are visually powerful. They are hard to be rid off even after closing the book. Perhaps Douglas Stuart’s training in the visual arts helped him develop an eye for detailing the literary landscape. Given that he acknowledges some parts of Shuggie Bain are based on his childhood, many of the details are probably crystal clear in his mind’s-eye. More so since he has lived in New York City and probably retains a memory, almost as if wrapped in amber, about past experiences. Having said that the descriptions in every line whether it is of the women poring over the catalogues, or trying on the new bras, or Agnes dancing drunk, or the various cans of soup being piled in the cupboard, or the children in the street poking at a lump in the gutter etc are visually very striking. The texture of the story is enhanced by the Scottish dialect. It takes a while getting used to but once the rhythm is understood, then so is the story. Something about the story is very reminiscent of what Irish literature was in the fin de siecle of the twentieth century. The closest parallel to Shuggie Bain seems to be Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Understandably Shuggie Bain has created quite a stir on the global literary landscape.

Shuggie Bain is worth reading.

28 Aug 2020

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