Literature

Trauma turned into art

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 08.01.2021

It is the only recent novel that has had local politicians complain about the bad publicity. And yet, it is by far the best book I have opened all year. Shuggie Bain, which won the 2020 Booker Prize, turns out to be an absolutely stunning read. Yes, it takes you to very depressing places: right into the heart of a family ruined by an adored mum’s alcohol addiction and into run-down Glasgow tenements, where lives were being blighted by pit closures and widespread unemployment during the 1980s. All the heavy industry gone within a generation thanks to Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government: ‘her future was technology and nuclear power and private health.’

Could the unflattering portrait really do harm by keeping tourists away all those decades later? The city authorities have been fighting back, insisting that regeneration is ongoing, but then the attraction of Glasgow has always been that rougher, grittier side coupled with the stunning Mackintosh architecture, as compared to Edinburgh’s more patrician Georgian crescents.

Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s debut novel. Born and raised in Glasgow, he graduated from London’s Royal College of Art before moving to New York City, where he worked as a menswear designer in the fashion industry. The book is semi-autobiographical since Stuart delves into his own memories. Like many a young child, Shuggie, the main protagonist, had to grow up overnight once he became his mum’s carer. Welfare money routinely vanished as Agnes used it to fuel her addiction. Stuart depicts the rollercoaster that Shuggie’s life turned into as dry periods became ever shorter, though they remained the only straw the boy could hold on to, the only hope on the horizon. An absent father with a new family of his own, a sister that escaped to South Africa as soon as she got married and a brother who set out to save his own skin once he concluded that their mother would never change. Soon there was only young Shuggie left to cope, held back by both love and guilt. Despairing, yet determined.

The bond between volatile Agnes and her younger son was as strong as could be and based on a role reversal: he ended up shielding her from both the Special Brew and from her drinking mates with almost maternal tenderness. She was the target not only of the latter but of men drawn to her beauty and an easy lay. We discover Agnes’s demons, but also her fighting spirit, her pride in her impeccable housekeeping as well as her immaculate appearance, which all somehow survived until she started drinking to forget herself.

To complicate matters even further, Shuggie had sensed his own vulnerability from a very young age: ‘He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was.’ Why did the neat little boy become the butt of so many feral attacks at school? Just as easy a target as his mum for being different, for preferring playing with pink ponies to the rough and tumble of football. Clearly, there was a real stigma to being gay in this poverty-stricken environment, where domestic violence hovered over most of the tenement flats as an ever-present threat.

Yet, despite all this bleakness, thanks to a few rare positive encounters, the novel becomes a celebration of life and resilience, of the young boy’s survival instinct and of those unbreakable family bonds. Stuart does not sentimentalise the suffering or lament Shuggie’s fate; he watches human behaviour and misbehaviour with great candour though without detachment. The energy and the lyrical beauty of the robust yet lithe prose are bound to lure you in. At times images literally explode on the page, adding fun and colour to the writing. Words like buoyancy and pullulation pop into your head. Ultimately, Shuggie Bain’ is a feat of inventiveness, observation and language. A must-read and a precious antidote for the current grim times. Happy New Year!.

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, Picador, 2020 (ISBN-13: 978-1529019278)

Janine Goedert
© 2021 d’Lëtzebuerger Land