Shuggie Bainby Douglas Stuart
A stunning debut novel by a masterful writer telling the heartwrenching story of a young boy and his alcoholic mother, whose love is only matched by her pride
WINNER OF THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize
Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.
Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good—her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits—all the family has to live on—on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her—even her beloved Shuggie.
A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Édouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.
WINNER OF THE 2020 BOOKER PRIZE
Finalist for the National Book Award
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize
Shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal
Shortlisted for the Books are My Bag Breakthrough Author Award
Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Washington Post
Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, Kirkus Reviews, and Kirkus Reviews
“The body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.”—Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review
“We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”—Booker Prize Judges
“This year’s breakout debut . . . It has drawn comparisons to D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Frank McCourt.”—Alexandra Alter, New York Times
“A debut novel that reads like a masterpiece.”—Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
“A novel that cracks open the human heart, brings you inside, tears you up, and brings you up, with its episodes of unvarnished love, loss, survival and sorrow.”—Scott Simon, NPR’s “Weekend Edition”
“Agnes Bain [is] the unforgettable human train wreck at the center of Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain . . . Titling the novel after Shuggie rather than the woman who dominates him seems like a small gesture of defiance on Mr. Stuart’s part . . . Mr. Stuart vividly inhabits the city’s singular ‘Weegie’ dialect and vocabulary . . . It’s the obstinate Bain pride that prevents this novel from becoming a wallow in victimhood and gives it its ruined dignity.”—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“The tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel . . . Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating. He can even pull off all of them in a single sentence . . . This overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.”—James Walton, New York Review of Books
“Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical, and full of revelatory descriptive insights . . . Reading Shuggie Bain entails a kind of archaeology, sifting through the rubble of the lives presented to find gems of consolation, brief sublime moments when the characters slip the bonds of their hardscrabble existence. That the book is never dismal or maudlin, notwithstanding its subject matter, is down to the buoyant life of its two principal characters, the heart and humanity with which they are described. Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.”—Alex Preston, Guardian
“Douglas Stuart drags us through the 1980s childhood of ‘a soft boy in a hard world’ in a series of vivid, effective scenes . . . Shuggie Bain is a novel that aims for the heart and finds it. As a novel it’s good, as a debut very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it progress from Booker longist to shortlist.”—John Self, Times (UK)
“Not only does [Stuart] clearly know his characters, he clearly loves them . . . Stuart describes their life with compassion and a keen ear for language . . . Such is Stuart’s talent that this painful, sometimes excruciating story is often quite beautiful.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s first novel, as intense and excruciating to read as any novel I have ever held in my hand . . . This novel is as much about Glasgow as it is about Shuggie and his impossible mother . . . The book’s evocative power arises out of the author’s talent for conjuring a place, a time, and the texture of emotion, and out of its language which is strewn with a Glaswegian argot sodden with desolation and misery . . . This is a hard, grim book, brilliantly written and, in the end, worth the pain which accompanies reading it.”—Katherine A. Powers, Newsday
“With his exquisitely detailed debut novel, Douglas Stuart has given Glasgow something of what James Joyce gave to Dublin. Every city needs a book like Shuggie Bain, one where the powers of description are so strong you can almost smell the chip-fat and pub-smoke steaming from its pages, and hear the particular, localized slang ringing in your ears . . . It turns over the ugly side of humanity to find the softness and the beauty underneath . . . This beauty, against all odds, survives.”—Eliza Gearty, Jacobin
“A heartbreaking story about identity, addiction, and abandonment.”—TIME
“An atmospheric epic set in 1980s working-class Glasgow, Shuggie Bain, a debut novel by Douglas Stuart, focuses on the relationship between a mother and son as she battles alcoholism and he grapples with his sexuality. It’s a formidable story, lyrically told, about intimacy, family, and love.”—Elle
“A dysfunctional love story—an interdependence whose every attempt to thrive is poisoned whenever a drink is poured—but here, between a boy and his mother. Stuart’s debut stands out for its immersion into working-class Glaswegian life, but what makes his book a worthy contender for the Booker is his portrayal of their bond, together with all its perpetual damage.”—Maria Crawford, Financial Times
“Magnificent . . . Its richly rendered events will give you a lot to talk about.”—O, the Oprah Magazine
“This is a panoramic portrait of both a family and a place, and Stuart steeps us fully in the grim decline of the Thatcher years: cheap booze, closed pits and lives lived on tick . . . Tender and unsentimental—a rare trick—and the Billy Elliot-ish character of Shuggie, when he does take the floor, leaps off the page.”—Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail
“Terrifically engrossing . . . A cracking coming-of-age story—a survivor’s tale you won’t be able to put down.”—Anthony Cummins, Metro
“An instant classic. A novel that takes place during the Thatcher years and, in a way, defines it. A novel that explores the underbelly of Scottish society. A novel that digs through the grit and grime of 1980s Glasgow to reveal a story that is at once touching and gripping. Think D.H. Lawrence. Think James Joyce . . . A literary tour de force.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Douglas’s sharp narrative perspective moves from character to character, depicting each internally and externally with astute grace, giving a complex understanding of the dynamics of the Bain family . . . Shuggie Bain is a master class in depicting the blinding dedications of love and the endless bounds to which people will go to feel in control, to feel better. It hopefully sets the tone for more beautifully devastating works of fiction to follow from Stuart in the future.”—Columbia Journal
“Heartfelt and harrowing . . . [A] visceral, emotionally nuanced portrayal of working class Scottish life and its blazingly intimate exploration of a mother-son relationship.”—Literary Hub
“The way Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting carved a permanent place in our heads and hearts for the junkies of late-1980s Edinburgh, the language, imagery, and story of fashion designer Stuart’s debut novel apotheosizes the life of the Bain family of Glasgow… The emotional truth embodied here will crack you open. You will never forget Shuggie Bain. Scene by scene, this book is a masterpiece.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Compulsively readable… In exquisite detail, the book describes the devastating dysfunction in Shuggie’s family, centering on his mother’s alcoholism and his father’s infidelities, which are skillfully related from a child’s viewpoint… As it beautifully and shockingly illustrates how Shuggie ends up alone, this novel offers a testament to the indomitable human spirit. Very highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Douglas Stuart’s anxious novel is both a tragedy and a survival story. Shuggie is as neglected as Glasgow, but through his mother’s demise, he discovers his strength. Shuggie Bain celebrates taking charge of one’s own destiny.”—Bookpage
“Stuart’s harrowing debut follows a family ravaged by addiction in Glasgow during the Thatcher era . . . There are flashes of deep feeling that cut through the darkness . . . Will resonate with readers.”—Publishers Weekly
“There’s no way to fake the life experience that forms the bedrock of Douglas Stuart’s wonderful Shuggie Bain. No way to fake the talent either. Shuggie will knock you sideways.”—Richard Russo, author of Chances Are
“Every now and then a novel comes along that feels necessary and inevitable. I’ll never forget Shuggie and Agnes or the incredibly detailed Glasgow they inhabit. This is the rare contemporary novel that reads like an instant classic. I’ll be thinking and talking about Shuggie Bain—and teaching it—for quite some time.”—Garrard Conley, New York Times-bestselling author of Boy Erased
“A rare and haunting ode to 1980s Glasgow and its struggling communities, Shuggie Bain tells the story of a collapsing family that is lashed together by love alone. Douglas Stuart writes with startling, searing intimacy. I fell hard for these characters; when they have nothing left, they cling maddeningly—irresistibly—to humor, pride and hope.”—Chia-Chia Lin, author of The Unpassing
“Shuggie Bain is an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working class life, rendered with old-school lyrical realism. Stuart is a writer who genuinely loves his characters and makes them unforgettable and touching even when they’re at their worst. He’s also just a beautiful writer; I kept being reminded of Joyce’s Dubliners. I loved this book.”—Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens
“A dark shining work. Raw, formidable, bursting with tenderness and frailty. The effect is remarkable, it will make you cry.”—Karl Geary, author of Montpelier Parade
Guide by Paula Cooper
1. Much of Shuggie Bain is set in Pithead, a run-down public housing scheme in 1980s Glasgow. When Agnes Bain finds that her husband, Shug, is moving the family from her parents’ flat in Sighthill, she thinks life will be better in the mining town, but instead she finds that Pithead is just a collection of miners’ houses on the edge of town with no longstanding social, economic, or cultural fabric to hold it together. How does that compare to America’s Rust Belt cities and Appalachian towns? How does it compare to Sighthill?
2. In Chapter 5, the author paints a grim picture of a girl’s life in Glasgow as Catherine makes her way through a Saturday. Even considering the menacing series of events that lead Catherine running to the pallet fort that day to find Leek, were you surprised by the threat from a gang of young boys to give her a “Glasgow smile” over something as seemingly petty as her allegiance to this or that football team? What does that say about the role sectarianism plays in Glasgow? What kinds of racial or religious parallels can you draw with American culture, both regionally and nationally?
3. Before moving to Pithead, Shug, Agnes, and her three children are “all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, [giving Agnes] a feeling of failure.” Instead, Agnes dreams of having her own front door, a garden, of “flitting” to a fresh start with Shug despite the overwhelming challenges his cheating and her alcoholism present. When Shug finally moves them, instead of it being a new beginning for them, he unexpectedly dumps the family in a council flat where tough, down-on-their luck women—their husbands emasculated by unemployment—run the community. How does this environment change the way you viewed Lizzie, her card-playing friends, and Agnes’s life in Sighthill?
4. Agnes is painted throughout as both neglectful and in thrall to her addiction but also as a tower of pride and strength. On pp. 267–68 these conflicting sides of her are described: “…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. Every day 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. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.” How did these irreconcilable depictions play in your head while you were reading? Or are they reconcilable?
5. The raw honesty of the characters in Shuggie Bain is almost shocking to an American ear. Nobody holds back, not even the kind man who runs the taxi garage where Agnes takes refuge in the rain and who right away sizes Agnes up for a drunk the day she’s on her way to pawn her mink coat. Unlike other characters, he seems bent on helping Agnes, suggesting AA to her over a cup of tea. What do you make of the unapologetic candor—both kind and rough—in this book? Is there something to this Glaswegian honesty that Americans could benefit from?
6. Shuggie’s femininity is ridiculed and weaponized by both children and adults. He is sexually assaulted by Bonny Johnny, the washing-machine boy, without even understanding what Johnny seems to plainly see in him or what a “wee poof” is. Leek tells him to be “normal for once” to which Shuggie replies, “I am normal.” Colleen tells Agnes: “Ye should focus yersel on that poofy wee boy of yers.” In the United States we talk about being “closeted” and “coming out.” At least in this part of Glasgow at this time, there appears to be no such closet for Shuggie or much tolerance for his being effeminate. How does this line up with your experiences with people’s sexuality and gender identity in the United States? How does Agnes, in her way, give him the armor to withstand what people rain down on him?
7. Throughout the book, Shuggie treats Agnes with the utmost tenderness, even when she’s at her worst. He cares for her physically, emotionally, and economically, as when he skips school to get their Tuesday Book. We often talk of the children of alcoholics taking on the role of parent and by all rights, Shuggie does. Indeed, he’s been abandoned to that role by both his father and his siblings. Still, his tenderness remains. Given everything one might judge Agnes for, what does she give Shuggie that he needs and/or values in return? What about her makes her a sympathetic character when viewed through his eyes? How does that stack up against everyone who has left him?
8. For better or worse, Agnes has undeniable power over men. When Shug moves her to the Pit and she discovers that he’s not staying, she asks him, “Why the fuck did you bring me here?” His answer? “I had to see if you would actually come.” What did the following passage reveal to you about Shug and Agnes: “She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later.” Did this change the way you viewed Agnes? Did it make you root for her? How did this revelation affect the way you viewed the balance of power between Agnes and Shug?
9. How did you react when Agnes was the only one who helped Colleen in the street the day Jamesy left her—even if she felt a bit of satisfaction in it? When Colleen described their marriage, did that change your perspective about what happened between Jamesy and Agnes? What about Colleen’s remark that she “didnae want any more mouths to feed” after Agnes had coveted her family?
10. So many people seem to want to keep Agnes down. Shug wants to break her so there are no pieces left for another man to repair. Jinty uses her as a support for her own alcoholism, even going so far as to offer up Agnes in exchange for a bag of carry-out in a devastating scene. All manner of men take advantage of her both casually and violently. But Eugene seems really to like Agnes and want a life with her. Were you surprised when he pressed her to drink again at the golf club despite her pushback?
11. When Leek threw Agnes’s first anniversary party, how did you react?
12. When Shug takes Shuggie to Joanie’s house while Agnes is recovering from her suicide attempt, Joanie’s council scheme is described: “What was once built to be new and healthful now looked sick with a poverty of hope.” Joanie “had a concrete front yard and an asphalt backyard, and therefore they paid a higher rent rate to the council.” What do Agnes and Joanie’s very different yards reveal about them?
13. Agnes’s father, Wullie, is depicted as one of the most standup characters in Agnes’s life. But when Wullie is on his deathbed in the hospital, Lizzie reveals to Agnes the secret of the baby son who was not Wullie’s, a baby who was the result of sex with a greengrocer in exchange for extra bits of food during the war while Wullie was away. When Wullie disappeared Lizzie’s baby with no explanation after his return, how did you react? Was it OK that Lizzie let the boy go? What role does the irrevocability of motherhood in general play in Shuggie Bain?
14. Leanne is the first character in Shuggie Bain who seems to take Shuggie for who he is and with whom Shuggie can really be friends. Did a peek into Leanne’s life with her own alcoholic mother make you view Shuggie and Agnes differently?
15. At various points in the book, Agnes assesses her level of drunkenness and often adjusts her behavior accordingly for the most desired effect in the moment—sometimes holding back and sometimes letting her anger rip. Does her level of self-awareness and self-reflection in the midst of a bender come as a surprise?
16. After everything, after hoping against hope that Agnes would someday recover, in an achingly intimate moment Shuggie seems to let his mother go. Or perhaps his hesitation in clearing her mouth wasn’t intentional. What do you think?
17. Scottish slang is rich and wonderful and sometimes very hard to understand for an American reader (without resorting to Google). How did the language in this book affect your read? What were your favorite words and expressions? Did they have American English equivalents?
18. The theme of being “enough” to keep someone—Agnes, anyone—from being an alcoholic is repeated throughout Shuggie Bain. Shug complains that he’s not enough. Shuggie desperately wishes he were and mistakenly assigns that magical attribute to Eugene, who in reality appeared after Agnes’s most longstanding go at remaining sober only to coax her back. What did you take away from this book regarding the role that control—internal or external—plays in alcoholism?
19. What role does forgiveness play in Shuggie Bain? Which of the siblings seems best off at the end?