I’m not normally a reader who pays much attention to prize winners, but when several members of my knitting group separately told me about how Shuggie Bain was a must read title, it quickly made its way on to my to read list.
Since Covid hit I’ve generally been reading more and more as a form of escapism. There are times when you just want to disappear into a book, and whilst Shuggie Bain is the sort of book that you can lose yourself in, it’s also not the sort of book you want to lose yourself in. It is a disturbing tale of young Shuggie and his mother Agnes who live in 1980s Glasgow. Agnes’ way of coping with everything that life throws (and it throws a lot in her direction) at her is drink. Yet, as Agnes falls deeper and deeper into drink her children (Shuggie has an older brother and sister) try to save her without much success. As Shuggie ends up saying goodbye to his siblings as they accept their mother will never change, he is determined not to give up hope.
Shuggie’s love for his mother and his dedication to her is utterly heartbreaking. There were several points in the book when I just wanted to jump in the car and drive up to Scotland to help Agnes and her son. The idea that the book reflects real life for some children makes it even more tragic. The only omission from the plot was social services. With modern safeguarding practices you would sincerely hope that they would have been alerted to the situation through Shuggie’s absences from school, but back in the 1980s processes admittedly were not as robust as they are today.
I would challenge anyone who has ever simply said that a parent should “stop drinking” to read Shuggie Bain and then say the same again. Every family and every individual is different, but what this book does is make it crystal clear just how complicated situations can be and also how easy downfall into drink can be. The impact of external factors can be huge, even if the links are not obvious.
I don’t think “enjoyed” is the right word to use when referring to a book that is frankly, uncomfortable and heartbreakingly tragic, but Shuggie Bain is a book that I’m glad I read. It’s a good reminder and insight into a life that might not be like your own, but is just as important. A life that is complicated and full of challenges. One that shows what some children have to deal with from a very young age.
Child poverty has scared me for a long time, and Covid and more recent pressures of lorry driver shortages, rising gas prices and threats of food shortages are only going to make the situation more difficult. We owe it to children like Shuggie to understand what their lives are like and speak up for them. They not only need support in their communities, but also people who represent and campaign for them at the highest levels. Let’s not let them down.
A painful read, but also a must read.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is available to buy online here.