I wanted to read this book not only because it won the Booker last year, but also because it portrays a world we rarely see in literary fiction. In this intricate, bleak, and at times relentless novel, Douglas Stuart transports us to the post-industrial wasteland of 1980s Glasgow; a city ravaged by Thatcherite policies that have caused mass unemployment, alcoholism and abject poverty.
Shuggie, the young son of Agnes and Shug (Hugh) Bain, is the lens through which we see this desolate world. Agnes is slowly drinking herself to an early grave, and Shuggie assumes the role of her protector and carer from a young age, making sure there’s a warm mug of Special Brew next to a strong cup of tea for when she comes round after a blackout, and hiding the razors when he leaves the house for school. Despite Agnes’s undeniable neglect of young Shuggie, and his elder half-siblings Catherine and Leek, he is devoted to her. Shuggie lives in a perpetual state of dread over his mother’s behaviour and potential fate, while never quite losing the hope that things will be okay in the end, even as degradation and misery swirls around him year after year.
I suppose what does shine through – even as it serves to make the events of the novel even more painful – is Shuggie’s capacity for love and forgiveness of his mother. He recognises her shortcomings, but admires the unshakeable façade she puts on for the outside world, in her ‘matted mink coat [which] gave her an air of superiority, and her black strappy heels clacked out a slurred beat on the long marble hallway.’ It’s hard to watch, hard to feel empathy for a character so flawed and self-destructive.
‘She was no use at maths homework, and 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. Everyday 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.’
Stuart’s Glasgow is one of ‘colourless daylight…[pouring] through net curtains’, a morning sun which ‘sets the slag hills on fire’, where the dust from the slag heaps is ‘like the inside of a burst Etch A Sketch, like the lead dust from a million shaved pencils.’ Where a drive through the city at night is ‘like a descent into the heart of the Victorian darkness.’ It’s relentlessly bleak but poetically rendered in its bleakness. After I finished the book I found this photography collection by Raymond Depardon and it really brought the reality home.
There’s so much cyclicality in this novel, so many sorry things happening again and again – sexual assault, bullying, violence, hunger, ostracization. Stuart vividly portrays the cycle of addiction and poverty, and how without a strong social fabric and structured, sustained assistance, it’s almost impossible to break free. This is where I struggled a bit with the narrative – the repetitiveness serves an important purpose in conveying the “message” of the novel, but I struggled to keep up the energy to continue reading under the weight of it all. It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is completely unforgettable. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.