Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart fortifies my belief in The Booker Prize winners. I’ve heard it called “The Best Reviewed Book You Haven’t Read” – and that very well could be true. It wasn’t on my radar until the year-end round ups.
Shuggie is a young boy living in the run-down public housing of Glasgow, Scotland. Set in the 1980’s, the country has been hit hard by a recession and there’s little hope for a kid whose mom is an alcoholic and whose dad has run off to live with another family. His two half-siblings are old enough to make their escape the best way they can – through work and marriage – which leaves Shuggie Bain holding the bag, trying to keep himself and his mom afloat.
Shuggie learns to manage the weekly welfare payments, keeping enough in reserve for food for the end of the week. But, he has a harder time learning to fit into the social structure that the other kids in the neighborhood seem to navigate so seamlessly. Shuggie is kind-natured and innocent, which makes him a target for bullies. And, he doesn’t feel the “normal” urges that the other boys – and girls for that matter – are telling him he should feel.
But at home, feelings are strong. He loves his mother, and for the life of him, he can’t understand the pull of the bottle for her. He also can’t understand her moods – which he knows are dangerous – or the revolving door of men she allows in when things become slightly more dire than usual.
This is a heartbreaking novel. But, a lot of good literature is. Agnes – Shuggie’s mom – is a tragic figure, and there’s much to say about the generational nature of poverty, particularly when it is paired with addiction. In addition to the tough subjects, the Scottish brogue is thick and sometimes hard to read. A few times I had to sound out the dialect to understand what was being said.
But Shuggie Bain is worth the investment of both your heart and your head.
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