“Shuggie Bain” is a story set in the third world. But this third world is not in the far reaches of continental Africa, nor even in the distant past. No, this bleak, grey, ashen epic is set in the early 80s (for the majority) in the metropolis and surrounding satellites of Glasgow. But with the level of poverty on show, it could just as easily be a sand-blasted, dry and disease ridden African village. Be warned; this tale of alcoholism, quiet homosexuality and prejudice is a stab in the heart for those who have suffered indirectly or directly from the aforementioned. This is not a comedy. Its not even a dark comedy in the vein of Trainspotting, perhaps.
Its stark and blunt. A sledgehammer made of smirr.
It could be argued that this is not Shuggie’s story (Shuggie, by the way, is a glaswegian way of saying Hugh), and in fact about his mother, but let us consider them both protagonists (the latter becoming a sympathetic antagonist, to be honest) – and even perhaps Shuggie’s father, also Shuggie, painted as a villain but could easily be considered a victim.
The decline of Agnes Bain from hoi polloi to wallowing drunk is one of the hardest things i’ve had to read about for some time, but this pales in comparison to the continuing addiction that she then endures. There are so many small moments when you actually think she may have conquered her vicious, devouring demon only to be let down (as a reader) by her seemingly unrelenting, heart-breaking U-turns. Unfortunately this is reality; i know it too well.
The novel is wonderfully well written, and perhaps it is this that is responsible for my adhesion to the novel for its duration. Given its subject matter i reckon i may have chosen to abandon the read earlier had it not maintained a rather grim grip over my heart, and tugging teasingly at my appreciation of the written word.
Shuggie Jnr is plagued by his subtle homosexuality, unacceptable and misunderstood in the slums of 80’s thatcherian Glasgow. He is obsessed with his mother, and his uncompromising loyalty to her through thick and thin is heart breaking. But the character is so real, so relatable and so relevant, it practically reaches out of the page to pick up its child-support giro out of your own hand. He loses his father to adultery, his sister to Africa and his brother to ‘a better life’, all because his mother is taken in by the devil’s waters and passively drowned for the duration of his childhood.
Shockingly uncompromising, i did not enjoy the read – i think this is obvious from my tone – but please, this is a tremendous, worthy read. But it does have me reaching a little tremulously for something happier and more colourful for my next read…