Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

You’ll have heard of this book because of the awards it won in 2020, including the Booker Prize.  This story of a young boy growing up with an alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow is worth the read.  It’s dark, but once I finished it, I missed the characters.  By the time you finish it, Shuggie is someone you feel like you know, and you want to stick around and see what happens next. 

I’m finding stories about addiction really powerful these days. We all need to understand addiction better because most of us are touched by it in one way or the other. As a society we have to treat addiction with sympathy, rather than condemnation, if we want to help people overcome their addictions. We have to see the humanity in people who are struggling, and this book does exactly that. 

While this novel is about a mother who is an alcoholic, it’s primarily about Shuggie, a hopeful young boy who’s forced to become an adult way too early in his life.  Shuggie feels different from everyone around him.  He’s tidy and polite and well-spoken, which makes him an outcast among the other boys, and the adults in his life see him as “not right”. 

Like Transcendent Kingdom, this book had me thinking about all the ways we are impacted by our families, all the ways we feel left out or different.  I’ve never experienced anything like what Shuggie goes through, but Stuart made me feel for him, every step of the way. This book is beautifully written and devastating at times. Quite a few times, in fact — it’s not an easy read.  Still, there is hope, and love, and even humor at times, as Shuggie navigates the world he lives in. 

She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. 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.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I can see why this book won the Booker Prize — it is a nuanced, thoughtful look at love, poverty, family, and addiction. Sometimes I hated Agnes, and sometimes I wanted her to succeed so much it hurt. There are scenes in this book that are so vivid, I may never forget them. Shuggie dancing in his home while the kids at the window laugh at him. Agnes being taken out to her first fancy dinner. Shuggie taking a cab across town to bring his mother home from a New Years party. Agnes making Shuggie drunk-dial the men who once betrayed her.

This is Stuart’s first novel, which is pretty amazing. There’s a point where it feels a little slow, as it’s made up of a lot of small incidents that sometimes don’t go anywhere, other than to deepen our understanding of the characters. This is definitely a character-driven, rather than a plot-driven, novel.

I love Scottish accents and dialect, so this was a perfect book to listen to as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator (Angus King) was excellent. He really brought Agnes, Shuggie, and even the lesser characters, to life. A lot of audio narrators aren’t great at doing both genders but I felt this narrator (and the author) really got me into the heads and hearts of these characters. The dialect can be difficult to understand at times, but I love trying to figure out what words mean, so this wasn’t a problem for me.

  11 comments for “Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

  1. February 18, 2021 at 11:27 am

    I now think I WILL read this–you told me why perfectly 🙂

    • February 20, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      I do my best, thank you! I hope if you read it, you’ll find it as moving as I did.

  2. February 20, 2021 at 5:34 am

    I was hesitant about reading this one but you’ve now convinced me it is more than worth exploring. the Booker judges in recent years have seemed to go for books that are experimental rather than necessarily readable. Good to see that with this selection they haven’t forgotten that fiction is about the art of telling a story through memorable characters

    • February 20, 2021 at 12:24 pm

      I don’t do very well with experimental books (I started Milkman for example and didn’t get very far, though I hear it’s excellent). I’ve not read a lot of the Booker winners. This is a traditional story but a very good one. I hope you’ll agree if you decide to read it!

  3. Izabel Brekilien
    February 26, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    I usually try to resist books that are all the buzz until it’s all settled down, but your review makes me think about it twice 😉

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