Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a novel about a boy, Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, living in Glasgow whose mother is an alcoholic, while he is questioning his sexuality. Shuggie initially lives with his mother, father, grandmother, half-brother, and sister. His father, Shug, is a taxi driver who, it turns out, was sleeping with a lot of other women. Shug makes the family move from their place in Sighthill to Pithead, a run-down miner’s town. Then, Shug abandons the family to live with another woman who worked at the taxi company. Throughout all of this, Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, drinks their money away and, many times, tries to kill herself. At Pithead, Shuggie learns he is different from the other boys with the way he walks, talks, and is called terrible names (in addition to being forced to give another boy a handjob and is touched by a taxi driver). By this time, Shuggie’s older sister has moved to Africa and Leek, Shuggie’s older brither, is distancing himself from Agnes. Agnes at one point, however, decides to get sober and gest a job working the night shift at a gas station. She does well for a little while, meets a man named Eugene, and goes to AA meetings. However, after her one-year anniversary of being sober, Eugene invites her to dinner and convinces her to have a drink. From there, Agnes’s drinking worsens and causes terrible pain for Leek and Shuggie. Eventually, Agnes and Shuggie move out of Pithead to start a new life on the East End, but it doesn’t work out. One night, after much drama, Shuggie is in the middle of helping his unconscious mother, when she chokes on her vomit and dies. The final scene is with Shuggie and his new friend, Leanne, helping her alcoholic mother with changing her clothes because she is homeless. In the end, the realization on Shuggie’s sexuality seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel for him.
This novel is expertly told through its Scottish dialect, its acute descriptions of alcoholism, and the way it depicts Shuggie’s sexuality. It’s a novel about abuse, poverty, queerness, drugs, but it’s also about love. There are mentions throughout, and some scenes where Agnes’s abuse shows through, such as her blackout night in the back of a taxi, or her under a pile of coats in a bedroom. And the final scene really was intense, showing that had Agnes continued on her path, she would’ve been just like Leanne’s mother and he would’ve been just like Leanne. It’s a heartbreaking and tender novel and I enjoyed it throughout.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.