Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain was the right choice
urrah! I couldn’t be more delighted that Douglas Stuart has won the Booker Prize for his hands-down wonderful debut novel, Shuggie Bain. For once the judges made the right choice – no co-winners like last year’s fiasco with Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo having to share the prize, and no tantrums among the judges as far as one knows. According to Gaby Young, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, choosing Shuggie Bain was a unanimous and ‘fairly quick’ decision.
With its old-fashioned narrative and conventional structure, it was certainly the popular choice among people I spoke to beforehand, and I imagine it will become become a best-seller. I hope so.
Shuggie Bain tells the story of a young boy growing up poor in 1980s Glasgow, in a council block. With an older half-brother and sister, Shuggie knows he is ‘different’ from other boys, but is too young to know that he is gay.
His mother Agnes is beautiful – she looks like Elizabeth Taylor – and is married to Shug, who works as a cab driver now that the mines have closed. Agnes dreams of more than she will ever have: “To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Him, her man, who when he shared her bed now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things”.
Shug relocates the family to Pithead, a post-industrial wasteland of a pit village on the outskirts of Glasgow, surrounded by closed mines and black slag hills. He soon scarpers, leaving Agnes to fend for herself and the children. Gradually, she sinks deeper into alcoholism, aided and abetted by her neighbours, and spending her benefits money on Special Brew and vodka.
The scenes of alcohol-fuelled violence and abuse, some sexual, some plain sadistic, are gruelling, but tempered by Stuart’s empathetic handling of his material and brilliant ear for dialogue. Tensions between Catholics and ‘Proddies’ are well-drawn and there are moments of exquisite humour, while the bond between the son and his mother is heart-breakingly poignant. Shuggie can’t help but love his mum; however bad she gets, he helps her get up, again and again.
The story is closely based on Stuart’s own relationship with his mother, who died of alcoholism when he was a teenager, and his non-relationship with his father, who left when he was four and died four years later.
At 430 pages, the book is, by a smidgeon, the longest of the six shortlisted titles, but in my view was the easiest and quickest to read, an emotional battering ram of a book, big-hearted, tender and without a hint of bitterness. It will stay with me for a long time and I shall certainly read it again.