Well, having read Maaza Mengiste's The Shadow King, this was not my first pick to win the Booker Prize. Yet when I began reading Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain, I couldn't put it down. Always a good sign.
Shuggie Bain is Stuart's first novel. Winning an award for your first book isn't bad but this was a long time coming, taking Douglas Stuart a lifetime to render.
Shuggie is the Scots' pet name for Hugh. Hugh (Shuggie) Bain is the youngest of a family with mixed parentage. Shuggie's story is really his mother's story, and as such it's told from many points of view: Leek, his step-brother, a withdrawn and talented artist who hardly speaks; step-sister Catherine, who is trying to escape into marriage and education (and another country); and their mother Agnes, who has always been a drinker, even before she left her husband for the philandering Shug senior, who gets to tell his story too.
And a colourful story it is. I felt a great connection with the lives of Stuart's characters in this family tale. Perhaps that's because they are based on real people, but also because they are well-realised. Stuart has drawn on his own painful childhood; losing his own mother to alcoholism while still in his teens.
Intense, heartfelt and complicated, Shuggie Bain illustrates that there is always love for a parent, no matter how flawed. Stuart relates this feeling well, getting under the skin with his characters, relating their feelings of both sympathy and anger towards drama-queen Agnes. Agnes, a beautiful and spoiled woman, craves a better life but lets herself down. She is in turn let down by men. Its a harrowing vision of a life of hunger; for booze, food, and love.
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the sense of place in this book is palpable. Beginning with Shuggie living alone in a lodging aged fifteen, the narrative shifts back in time to Grandparents Lizzie and Wullie's high-rise tenement flat, crammed with all the family; to the slag piles of a redundant coal-mining town. Each part of the book reflects these places as pivotal moments in the Bains' life: Southside, Sighthill, Pithead. There are some really memorable scenes in this story: the slag piles scaled by Leek and Shuggie, the Cathedral-like feeling of the old colliery, and Agnes' moment in the sun at the posh Golf Club, to name only a few.
Shuggie and his brother Leek are destined to protect their mother from herself, and the women and men who exploit and enable her.
It's been twenty-five years since a Scot won the Booker Prize (How Late It Was, How Late,by James Kelman, 1994). This year many award-winners have been first writers, women, and writers of colour. "Representation in fiction: why does it matter?" asks Alex Clark, reviewing Shuggie Bain for the Guardian newspaper. Stuart says the answer is that it informs a reader's view of humanity; values of who are and who aren't written into English-language stories, and the reason many readers are loving the insertion into fiction of 'herstory' and experiences other than 'white male.' This white male says that for everyone, the experience of reading “my people, my dialect, on the page” can be life-affirming: referring back to Kelman's award-winner as an early influence in his own life.
Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh have represented experiences of disenfranchised, unemployed youth in nineteen-eighties Edinburgh, while Val McDermid has given readers a more contemporary view of her beloved Leith.
Stuart's writing includes Gaelic vernacular. Like Big Girl, Small Town, (Northern Ireland), Shuggie Bain is full of fun words like sleekit, boak and wean. It could do with a glossary. Did you know that messages are shopping in Scotland?
Luckily I have a Scots colleague and we had ourselves a wee hoot looking them up. A descendent of Scots/Irish myself, for me these words are a need-to-know.
Representation, says Stuart, is a home-coming. After travelling the world in stories, I come home to Gaelic authors like Anne Enright.
Stuart has, perhaps, like the sandblasting restorers of Glasgow's Victorian architecture in the 'eighties, exposed the stark beauty and brutal backbone of the people.