I was delighted when it was announced in November that Shuggie Bain had won the Booker Prize. I had only read two of the shortlisted books, and this was one of them, which made me feel very ‘on top of literary events’! I had chosen this one to tackle first from the shortlist purely because it was the longest and I planned to listed on audio so I thought I’d have a good chance of getting through it. I have not done well with previous Booker nominees who have written very long books – it took me weeks to finish The Overstory by Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018), although I absolutely loved that book and slightly preferred it to the winner (which was Milkman); I never finished Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 from 2017; and I haven’t yet even got around to buying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, nominated last year. I really want to read it, but I’m not sure I have space in my life for over 1,000 pages of unbroken prose at the moment (45 hours on audio!)!
Anyway, back to Shuggie Bain. It is brilliant. It is conventionally written (which, actually, is quite nice) and it is a cracker of a story with beautifully drawn characters, a wonderful sense of place (the rougher ends of 1980s Glasgow) and the most real, colourful and vivid passages of dialogue I have come across in a long while. The audiobook was read brilliantly by Angus King – the range of voices he conjures is quite exceptional.
Shuggie, short for Hugh, is the third and youngest child of Agnes Bain. She is married to Shug (also Hugh) Bain, a philandering taxi driver, and has two other children, Catherine and Leek, from her earlier marriage to a safe and steady Catholic. Agnes left her first husband because he never excited her enough. Agnes is beautiful and vivacious and her guiding philosophy in life is always to present her best face to the world. This remains true for her even in the darkest of times, of which there are many.
When we first meet the family they are living with Agnes’s parents in a tower block. Shuggie and his mother are extremely close. He adores her. Shuggie himself is something of a misfit in this part of the world. He is delicate, sensitive and effeminate and has inherited his mother’s fastidious attention to outward appearance, her attraction to beautiful things. Agnes loves to dress Shuggie in smart new clothes from the catalogue, which she can ill afford, and, knowing that her boy is ‘different’ to his peers, she encourages him to at all times hold his head high and to rise above the jealousies of others.
It becomes clear from quite an early stage that Shug has become uninterested in a future life with Agnes and the children. He promises to organise a new home for the family, which he does, in a pleasant suburb of the city, which they are all excited about. For Agnes, this will be to live the dream she had always imagined for herself. As they are driving through the streets of the new suburb, however, the car fails to stop at any of the neat little houses with their manicured gardens. Instead, they continue through to a far-off collection of dreary run-down properties around a declining coal pit. The gap between expectation and reality could not be greater and the high-tension scene is brilliantly written. As the family enters their new home, Agnes realises that it does not have enough bedrooms for them all, which is what Shug had promised. Shug also chooses this moment to announce to Agnes that he is leaving her. The realisation that they are on their own, they have been abandoned, dumped in a grimy hell-hole, is shocking.
From here on in we observe Agnes’s ‘drink problem’ develop into full-blown alcoholism. Her ‘man problem’ becomes equally demeaning and self-destructive. Her older children leave her eventually too. Only Shuggie, much younger though he is, stays. Shuggie has his own problems, and we explore this too – in our more diverse and open-minded society (mostly) we forget what it was like for children like Shuggie, children who were a bit different, to be growing up in these brutalised, deprived, closed communities. The violent bullying he endures is shocking, but he somehow learns a kind of resilience to this from his mother. It is the agony of the relationship he has with Agnes that is actually much harder for him to bear.
This novel is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. It is beautifully constructed and written and I cannot think of a better one I have read this year.