Book Review: “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart – The Grimmest Novel ever Written?

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Maybe not, but it must be up there. Choose a grim city – Glasgow (disclaimer, I’ve never been to Glasgow, and I’ve heard it’s improved a lot, but back in the 70s, 80s it had a terrible reputation e.g. look up the meaning of “A Glasgow Kiss“). Choose a grim period for that city – when Margaret Thatcher was destroying the fabric of British society, because she didn’t believe that society actually existed. Choose the grimmest parts of the city – the tenements and a dead coal mining town. Choose a dysfunctional family – abusive father, alcoholic mother. Choose a troubled child – a boy struggling with his sexual identity in an environment where anything non-standard is met with shaming and violence. This is what Douglas Stuart is writing about. He won the Booker Prize for this, his first novel, in 2020. It’s a hard, hard read and is, perhaps, overly long. I made it to the end, just, but it is deeply depressing.

However, the writing is good. The depiction of Shuggie and his family is based on Stuart’s own experience – his own family and those around him in his Glasgow childhood. The characterisation of Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is particularly strong. Indeed, the book might be more accurately titled “Agnes Bain”, though that doesn’t have the same ring. Somehow the character of Shuggie was never entirely clear to me, nor that of his brother Leek.

Above all this novel is a condemnation of Thatcher’s policies, of the devastation wreaked on working class communities, especially those dependent on dying industries – their death made sudden and painful by Thatcher. What once were probably close knit, supportive communities became spiteful, poverty stricken, addicted gaggles of people with no jobs, no future, no hope.

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© Mike Hopkins 2021

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