About a third of the way through Shuggie Bain I found myself once again questioning the wisdom of the Booker Prize panel, concerned that this 2020 winning novel was not much more than a standard misery memoir. Because it certainly starts that way. This openly autobiographical novel tells the story of the author’s distressingly difficult childhood in all its awful detail. All the traditional features of the misery memoir genre appear in quick succession. Young Shuggie Bain’s family is desperately poor (although arguably no poorer than the rest of his decimated working class Glaswegian community). His father is a philanderer and his mother is an alcoholic. Shuggie is gay, well spoken (mysteriously missing the broad Glaswegian accent of his family and neighbours) and artistic, and bullied relentlessly at school. The urban environment is empathetically grim:
“So Shuggie sat in stilted silence as the taxi rounded the corners of a brutal-looking council scheme. Each street was a scarred field of burnt-out off-licences dirty canals, and cars on bricks…Five or six tall high-rises pinned the heavy sky in place…the high-rises were ringed with low, boxy concrete houses… What was once built to be new and healthful now looked sick with a poverty of hope. There was no grass and no greenery; every flat surface was concreted over or covered in large, smooth round boulders.”
As is the weather:
“Rain was a natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial.”
Child, domestic and sexual abuse is so common it is not even recognised as such, or more precisely that there is not the language to describe it as such. Unemployment is almost universal, the mines and dockyards having been closed by the Thatcher Government. When the family moves to a grimy pit village outside of Glasgow in a futile attempt to escape, the community are hostile and unwelcoming. His father leaves home for another woman and his mother descends into even further alcoholic abuse. Catholic and Protestant sectarianism provides a final layer of nastiness to daily life. Shuggie’s sister leaves home as soon as she can, and his older brother can do little to help. He goes hungry most days and becomes his mother’s primary carer. It was a hard, depressing, unrelenting read, and I worried what else could go wrong for Shuggie, especially as the novel had opened with a chapter showing him living alone and having left school before his sixteenth birthday.
But then, amazingly, I found myself slowly coming to admire Shuggie’s extraordinary resilience. Despite the overwhelming challenges he faces everyday, he does his best to care for his alcoholic single-parent mother, goes to school when he can, keeps himself smart and ignores the bullies. Look most young carers he grows up quickly, learning to dress and undress his mother when she is in an alcoholic stupor:
“Shuggie gently lifted her foot, first unbuckling the tiny ankle clasp and slipping off each high heel and then carefully pulling the hard seam of her black tights out from between her toes. He rubbed the balls of her cold feet tenderly, and then he set each foot gently back on the floor. He talked to her quietly as he did…He set her high heels to the side of her chair and stood over her again. With skill he searched under the soft sag of her breasts until he found the centre of her chest, and through her thin jumper he undid the butterfly hook of her bra… Hooking his fingers he found each bra strap. He moved them on her shoulder line and freed her burdened flesh from the digging pressure of the nylon. Agnes stirred but did not wake. She coughed again, a deep damp cough that was the miners’ houses and mould, warm lager and now a cold night by the river.”
This scene jumped out at me, not just because of how it is resolved. Shuggie looks after his mother with such care – “gently, carefully, tenderly, with skill” – and has obviously done this many times before. More, it is written with an attention to detail that tells me the author has almost certainly had to do the same thing himself – sometimes scenes have an authenticity that is more than just a careful imagining of an event.
Agnes, his alcoholic mother, is in many ways the central tragic figure of this novel. She battles with her demons, and for one brief period seems to recover from her addiction, succumbing only to prove to her latest boyfriend that she is not the slave to alcohol she most obviously is. She is unable to give her children the care they need, but Shuggie’s love for her is indomitable. He is not perfect – he loses his temper and lies to her, but these are moments in years of devotion. And although Shuggie can’t in the end rescue his mother from her demons and comes to terms with the hopelessness of his task, the novel closes with scenes of him caring for another seemingly lost cause.
The New York Times described Shuggie as living in a “world of pain made bearable by love” which I think captures it right.
Finally, just a quick word about the novel’s cover images. The cover of the Picador hard back edition carries an extraordinary image (left) of a young boy perched on a cross-shaped post, a vivid crucifixion metaphor set against the backdrop of a desolate urban landscape. The first edition used this (right) tender picture of a young son cradling his mother’s head, locking eyes with her, both characters with a half-smile of recognition, his bare stick-thin arms showing his young age. It’s rare for an author to be so well served by such inspired and at the same time very different choices.