Grove Press, 2020
(read earlier this month)
Quite honestly, had I not seen this book on the Booker Prize longlist, I may have never read it and that would have been a shame. I nearly passed on it after reading the back-cover blurb by Sandra Newman who described the book as
"an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working-class life..."
because my initial impression was that this is yet another book about yet another dysfunctional family and I have been avoiding that sort of thing for some time. I couldn't have been more wrong. As it turns out, Shuggie Bain not only turned out to be a great book, but also one that now, ten days after finishing, I'm still thinking about and still talking about to anyone who will listen.
While the novel opens in 1992, the bulk of this story takes place during the 1980s. Hugh "Shug" Bain, his wife Agnes and their three children are all living in Glasgow, in a "high-rise flat" they share with Agnes' parents. Agnes had been married before to Brendan McGowan, the father of Catherine and Alexander (who goes by the name of Leek); Shuggie (Hugh Jr.) came along after she'd left Brendan and married Hugh. Agnes spends time reflecting on happier times, and has dreams of a better life, but all too often alcohol gets in the way. On one particular night while Shug and the older two children are out and Agnes' parents are watching TV, she is feeling somewhat sorry for herself and decides that she and Shuggie should "have a wee party." He dances for her, makes her laugh, and to keep her laughing,
"he did whatever had caused her to laugh another dozen times till her smile stretched thin and false, and then he searched for the next move that would make her happy."
The night ends with Agnes singing along with the music, "her voice cracked with the poor me's," then deliberately setting the bedroom curtains on fire. The pattern of her "poor me's" while drinking and Shuggie searching for "the next move that would make her happy" will continue over the years, as the Bain family (minus Catherine, who's married and gone abroad) leaves Glasgow for a house Hugh had bought in desolate Pithead, and as Hugh decides he can't stay with her any longer because of her "wanting" and "All that drinking."
The remainder of the novel takes us through Shuggie's childhood and his relationship with Agnes as her drinking becomes worse. Although Leek tries to look out for the family, eventually he is unable to take much more and leaves Agnes to Shuggie's care, not always easy for this young boy who is also trying to deal with his own growing pains, including, as the dustjacket cover says, a feeling that he is "no right."
This is just a thumbnail sketch, of course -- I haven't said anything about the times or the Thatcher era policies that sadly left so many people out of work, nor have I said anything about Glasgow as a setting or the bleak landscape of Pithead that mirrors the bleakness of the lives of the working-class families who live there. That's all to be discovered in the novel, so vibrantly and yet so achingly described.
My worries about this book completely dissipated once I got into it, and it came to be a story not just about an alcoholic mother, but of the boy who loves her so unconditionally and so deeply despite all of her failings as a parent -- as he said to her at one point, "I'd do anything for you." It was difficult to watch Shuggie take on so much at such a young age, having to deal with Agnes' ups and downs; at the same time, the intensity of his devotion to his mother fairly leaps off of the pages, even during the worst of times. Agnes presents as a character in conflict, but she was also an object of my sympathy. As frustrated as I was with her most times, there were times when I couldn't help but admire her fortitude. As we're told in Chapter 20,
"She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but ... Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise."
Shuggie Bain is the author's first novel, and it is absolutely gorgeous. While it is bleak, there are parts here and there that will make you laugh, and the book leaves you with a small bit of hope at the end. I made it through the story dry eyed, but I must have been holding everything inside while reading because the minute I read the last word, the floodgates opened and I had to run for tissues. I can't stress enough the beauty to be found here, and it is a book I very highly, highly, highly recommend.
One final thought: From the author in The New Yorker, September 7 2020:
"Shuggie and Agnes feel like real people to me. I only hope that I can make them proud."
I'm sure you did, sir, especially Agnes. Very much so.
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