‘She’d looked as happy as he could ever remember, and he was surprised how this hurt. It was all for the red-headed man. He had done what Shuggie had been unable to do.’
These devastating lines come halfway through Douglas Stewart’s debut novel, the deserved winner of the 2020 Booker Prize. ‘He’ is Agnes Bain’s youngest child, Hugh, known as Shuggie after his father.
The ‘red-headed man’ is Eugene, a self-interested, lonely widower who courts Shuggie’s mother Agnes and who is yet another person – specifically, a man – who ruins her. First there was her father, years earlier, who bitterly came to regret indulging his daughter, as do both her husbands. Yet Agnes’s beauty is compelling and irresistible; it also seems inviolable, enduring even when the demon drink impairs her capacity for everyday living, and in spite of the heckles and put-downs from the neighbourhood gossips on the bleak housing estate flanked on one side by the abandoned colliery and marshland on the other. In Thatcher’s 1980s Glasgow, Agnes is constantly condemned for daring to have pride in circumstances which are patently denigrating.
Shuggie, needing beauty himself, is fuelled by Agnes’s vitality. But it’s a thin fuel; one character observes of the boy at eight: ‘he had grown taller but he had also sunk somehow, like bread dough stretched much too thin. She could see he had slid deeper into himself and become more watchful and guarded. He was nearly eight now, and often he could seem so much older.’
Both Agnes and Shuggie accept the need to be normal in order to fit in but neither can manage it – mother and son form an unspoken pact to stay together even when everyone else abandons them. Agnes’s parents die, the husbands detach themselves (Agnes left her first husband but he soon stopped contact with his children; Shug Bain moves the family out of town and leaves them there), her elder children leave – first Catherine, who escapes to South Africa with her new husband, then finally Leek can endure no more and makes his own life in another part of town. But Shuggie remains. He would do anything for her.
Despite the title, Shuggie Bain is more Agnes’s story. Or perhaps there’s more to say of her because Shuggie, who is six at the beginning and in his mid-teens at the end, sees much but understands or concedes very little, remaining ‘watchful and guarded’. He keeps his precocity, and his sexuality, close to his chest, and is a quiet but potent presence in this story. In a strange way, the reader is protected from enduring an impossibly harrowing narrative.
Douglas Stuart writes with a light, lyrical touch that is not without humour. He includes a smattering of Glasgow dialect but there’s a power that transcends word choice and placement. This is a book full of heart. For all that the Scottish literary world is rightfully proud of Stuart’s achievement, he has spent most of his adult life in America and it felt like a sweeping American novel rather than a British one. Or perhaps it’s an ex-pat’s novel, addressing what’s been left behind but also carried with him.
I also think it’s like a prequel – the making of the man – because only at the very end, in the final paragraph, does Shuggie feel safe enough to outwardly display his real self. Shuggie Bain is apparently autobiographical, but it is fiction. I left it wondering where Shuggie is now, feeling hopeful.