Lucy Dunn reviews this year’s Booker Prize Winner by Scottish-born Douglas Stuart.
Starting and ending with a teenage Shuggie living alone, parentless, in a Southside bedsit, Douglas Stuart’s debut novel is raw, gripping, hopeful and devastating. In 1980s Thatcher-era Glasgow, the language is violence and the currency is sex. Not the commonly-portrayed white-collar patriarchy so frequently criticised in modern day media, Glasgow’s male-female power imbalance is a scummy, aggressive, overt violation of women. Shuggie Bain is a tale of a child’s love for his mother, unfailing throughout her deterioration and degradation.
Family is a theme that endures throughout, and yet no conventional nuclear set-up is ever described. Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, is in her second marriage to Shug Bain, a protestant and womaniser. Despite his substandard looks, Shug Bain fits the mould of the Glaswegian male stereotype: he’s a balding, charming, Protestant man, attractive through his boundless confidence, gruff aggression, and demeaning wit. He steals Agnes away from her “good Catholic” husband, Brendan McGowan, with gold-ridden promises of their future together. Yet, on their first holiday to Blackpool, he’s full of nothing but disgust for her excited drunken giddiness. That night, he attacks and rapes her, setting a precedent for the rest of their relationship: she’s his property, and once he’s finished with her, she’ll never be fit for anyone else again.
The brashness of the adultery, and the ease with which it clearly becomes an accepted part of married life, shocks throughout. The rough, unflattering descriptions of Ann-Marie, Agnes’ 24-year-old friend, through the eyes of Shug Bain shows how he sees women: desperate, fuckable, and worthless. “Aye, well, take your fucking knickers off then. I’ve only got five minutes.”
The blows don’t become easier to take, no matter how often the affairs take place. The roughness and coarseness and pure exposed vulgarity with which the incidents occur reinforce the novel’s key element: man’s relentless power over woman. The dialogue between the sexes is violence, sometimes presented in the most insidious of ways. Violence is physical, mostly sexual, and throughout the novel it persists, delivering an unwanted, uncomfortable taint to each scene. Even Eugene, the one man who seems to hold himself with any decency, uses violence by coldly distancing himself, and by doing what most of us would today recognise as “ghosting”, to bend Agnes to his will.
Shuggie starts off as the baby of the family, born out of an attempt by Agnes to permanently tie herself to her new husband. Slowly we see him evolve, growing up much too fast and disproportionately to his age. As each of his older siblings leaves their progressively deteriorating mother, who descends further and further into the dark depths of alcoholism, Shuggie takes on a few more years and learns to take control. He helps dress and bathe his mother, standing by her side during her drunken rants and doing the shopping when she can’t. Despite her worsening state, Shuggie remains devoted to his mother, his love for her stronger than anything else. He gladly sacrifices parts of his own life, in vain, to try and protect her health and happiness. When everyone loses faith, Shuggie forces himself to believe that Agnes can recover.
But his alcoholic mother and absent father make up only a proportion of his problems. Shuggie is torn by his constant internal conflict: is it better to be “normal” like his brother instructs him, or to embrace his queerness? No matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to enjoy kicking about a bladder ball more than playing with My Little Ponies. Growing up as the son of an alcoholic is described to be normal enough in the corners of Glasgow, but growing up gay is a heinous tragedy in a Catholic setting. Visibly gay, anyway. As Shuggie finds out much too young, it isn’t only tired, beaten women who are abused by their men: boys can just as easily become sexual targets.
Shuggie Bain follows the lives of its two main characters, and yet it depicts the story of far many beyond that. The fragility of women in Scottish culture is examined in detail: whether tied to man or drink, they’re painted as perpetual dependants, and the sad truth of their mercilessness is both abhorrent and relatable. The curse of addiction to a being that will never return that same love is a tale told with bitterness and flat honesty. The dark glamours of our own self-romanticised lives are stripped back, bare, in the cold morning light of Stuart’s writing. As Agnes retches and cries and holds her bruised sides, we both revolt at her and sympathise with her. As Shuggie dries her eyes and mouth, thinking of his long departed sister and brother, the tender complexities of family life come out in full: how often, it’s not as simple as parents parenting children and, as we see at the end, that love isn’t necessarily kind.
An evocative, coarse read, Douglas Stuart, a Scottish-American queer fashion-designer turned writer from Sighthill, brings to life experiences from his own childhood in a way that dismantles preconceived judgements and lets us examine the family dynamic in the light of poverty, addiction, and Glaswegian masculinity.