“Shuggie Bain” is the story of a dysfunctional family, living outside Glasgow, rocked by alcoholism, violence and neglect. Shuggie is the youngest member of the family and the story revolves around his life and experiences.
The novel starts in 1992 with 16 year old Shuggie working a difficult job in a supermarket and living by himself in a boarding house. “The bedsit was taller than it was long, and his single bed stuck out into the middle like a divider.” Shuggie has his mother’s porcelain figurines and thinks about her regularly.
The story then flashes back to explain how a sixteen year old boy ends up living on his own. In 1981, five year old Shuggie (Hugh) is living with his mother, Agnes, his father, Shug, his half-sister Catherine, his half-brother, Leek (Alexander), and Agnes’s parents Lizzie and Wullie. Shug is a taxi driver with a wandering eye and Agnes is a drinker. The times are hard and jobs are scarce. They are living comfortably with Agnes’s parents but certainly not well to do.
Agnes is aware of her husband’s philandering which causes her to drink more, causing him to philander more. Agnes is described as strikingly beautiful, and had been married before meeting Shug to a reliable Catholic man named Brendan McGowan. Shug, a Protestant, swept Agnes off her feet and she left Brendan, along with her children Catherine and Leek, to be with Shug. Lacking resources, they moved in with Agnes’s parents and Shuggie was born. The distinctions between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland is a constant thread throughout the novel.
After one particularly difficult evening, Agnes drinks herself into a stupor and sets her room on fire. She survives and shortly thereafter Shug announces that he has found them their own home. Lizzie, distrustful of Shug, tries to convince Agnes and the kids to stay but they choose to go. The home is in a terrible part of town, consisting of an old miner’s community where the mines were closed, the men lack work, and everyone is related and into each other’s business. Agnes is mortified. The first person she meets is a woman named Birdie Donnelly. Birdie introduces her to all her family and Agnes observes that “They all looked like Birdie, even the boys, only they looked less masculine.”
Soon after the move, Shug announces that he is leaving. “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.”
Agnes is left drinking herself into oblivion, egged on by her neighbors. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Shuggie, who has devoted himself to his mother, is “different” and the neighbor kids and the kids at school torment him relentlessly. His sister Catherine marries Shug’s nephew, moves to South Africa and is rarely heard from. Leek, a very quiet young man, tries to protect and take care of Shuggie, but ultimately Agnes chases him away. Shuggie becomes physically ill worrying for and taking care of his mother.
At one point Agnes becomes sober but as the result of a relationship goes back to drinking. She decides to move away from the miner’s community and finds an apartment in the city. While living in the city Shuggie makes his first real friend, the only up beat part of the story. In many ways, the move to the city is where Agnes’s story ends.
The novel is filled with poverty, cruelty, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse and mental illness. Most of the men in the story are cruel, abusive and single minded. Shuggie struggles with his differences and his sexuality and most of the people he encounters are mean to him and try to take advantage of him. The book is a rough read based on theme but it is beautifully written and it won the 2020 Booker Prize. You can reserve Shuggie Bain at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.