‘Shuggie Bain’ – a devastating account of heartbreak and hope in 1980’s Glasgow

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.

Wahala by Nikki May

Book Review | Wahala by Nikki May

Boo, Simi and Ronke are navigating life in their mid-thirties in London. Ronke, a dentist, is hoping that her latest boyfriend, Kayode, will be her Mr. Right. Simi is pursuing a high-flying career in fashion and struggling with the decision about having kids with her husband, Martin. And Boo is growing dissatsified with her domestic life as wife and mother and growing increasingly attracted to her boss.

An old Facebook photo is what pulls the enigmatic and disgustingly wealthy Isobel into their lives. Isobel grew up in Nigeria with Simi, but they had been out of touch for decades. Seeing a photo on Facebook from a mutual friend’s wedding, Isobel reaches out to Simi to reignite their friendship. Something is off about Isobel from the start – she’s profligate with her wealth, driven around by a driver-cum-bodyguard, and lavishly bestows gifts upon the trio. It’s hardly suprising, then, that she turns out to be a sinister character. Upon her arrival, everyone’s life starts to go pear-shaped.

What I liked: Nigerian culture is infused into the story, particularly through the authentic dishes (Ronke’s favourite restaurant in London is like ‘stepping into downtown Lagos’), and other cultural customs like the aso ebi worn for special occasions – where everyone on one side of the family gets their outfits made from the same fabric. There’s also a sharp contrast between the way that Simi and Ronke connect with Nigerian culture, having spent most of their childhood there, and the disconnect that Boo feels, having been raised by her white British mother in England. We also get an insight into the way these characters experience colourism and racism within their everyday lives – like when patients come into Ronke’s dental practice and assume her (Hispanic, male) dental nurse is the dentist, or when Kayode prevents a white guy from assaulting Ronke and the police turn up to arrest him. These details enriched a narrative that otherwise fell rather flat.

The problem lies in the fact that we know everything has to come to a head – Isobel’s arrival portends this – but it takes a really long time to get there. As such, most of the novel is a slow slide into things going wrong and the characters becoming increasingly unlikeable and frustrating. The ‘thriller’ aspect doesn’t rear its head until the last 20% of the book, and it all becomes a bit cartoonish and wrapped up too quickly. It didn’t really work for me, but I’m sure it will have a lot of fans – and I hear it’s being made into a TV series, so I’ll be interested to see how they approach that.

With thanks to Doubleday for the advanced copy. Wahala will be published on January 6th 2022.

A Thousand Splendid Suns - book review

Book Review | A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I don’t like to preach. But if there was ever an important time to read this book, that time is now.

I finished The Kite Runner a week before the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in August. We all know what happened next: in a matter of hours the tyrranical Taliban had seized control of the entire country and things started looking very dark indeed.

I hadn’t been purposefully reading The Kite Runner at that time. The impending withdrawal of US and UK troops hadn’t seemed to have gathered too much fanfare on the front page. A news story that is devastating even if you know nothing about the country and its people kept me awake at night. The emotional impact felt magnified.

I knew that A Thousand Splendid Suns was not going to be light bedtime reading. Charting three decades of tumultuous Afghan history, the story begins with Mariam, a ‘harami’ – born to an unwed mother, the housemaid of her wealthy father. She grows up with the understanding that as women, our burden is to ‘endure all that falls upon us’ – something she comes to know all too well when she is married off to a middle-aged widower at 15.

Laila is born in the early 90s to a mild-mannered father and an emotionally unstable mother, who has never recovered from her two beloved sons leaving to fight the jihadi cause. When fighting between rival mujahedeen factions in Kabul becomes too much – rockets claiming lives and limbs on a daily basis – the family decide to flee for Pakistan. But they won’t make it past the gates of the city.

‘…For a moment, standing there in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents’ deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.’

The power of Hosseini’s writing is in its beauty and simplicity, in his ability to build a rich tapestry of a life and of a moment in history. The story is so enriched – as with The Kite Runner – with the details about Afghani life, from the Titanic craze that gripped the nation in the late 90s (you could even buy a Titanic burqa), to how the family would bury the TV, wrapped in tarpaulin, in the back garden and dig it up again when it was safer to do so. All of these details exist alongside what is for the most part a harrowing, gut-punch of a novel.

There are some contrivances in the plot that felt a little clichéd – young lovers’ first ever night of passion results in a pregnancy, an escape plan is fatalistically foiled – but the novel is less about actions that propel the plot and more about the rich interior lives of the two female protagonists, whose characters grow into their own as the story progresses. Despite innumerable hardships – poverty, violence, persecution – these are women with rich emotional lives, who find strength in each other and in never failing to let go of the small glimmer of hope that things will change for the better.

‘The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still.’

What hit particularly hard was a conversation that takes place shortly after 9/11 when the country is invaded. The Taliban are ousted, but there’s a long way to go until peace and prosperity.  ‘Maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war,’ one of the characters says to another, ‘maybe for the first time in a long time…’ Hosseini wasn’t to know, writing this in the first half of the 2000s, what would happen 15 years later – that perhaps for some, hope has never felt further away.

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on.

https://www.afghanaid.org.uk/

https://www.rescue.org/

https://miles4migrants.org/

Six Degrees of Separation: Shirley Jackson to Lisa Taddeo

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us. Links can be anything that comes to your mind and need not have rhyme or reason…

The starting book for this month is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’d never heard of this short, frightening story – which caused an absolute uproar when published the 1940s in the New Yorker. So of course I had to see what all the fuss was about – and it’s a terrifying little tale which much to say about mob mentality, tradition and conformity in insular communities. You can read the whole story at this link – it won’t take you very long – and is perfectly timed for Halloween…

I don’t often seek out scary books, but I kept seeing Mona Awad’s Bunny everywhere last year and decided to give it a go. It’s set at an exclusive MFA program in New England, where a group of girls start doing some very strange sh*t and the boundary between the real and the imaginary totally collapses in a bizarre, genre-bending way. It wasn’t for me, but to each their own…

I just re-read this one for book club, so it’s at the front of my mind – hello to another very well-known literary milieu, the prestigious Vermont liberal arts college where the characters of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History find themselves – an elite group of students studying ancient Greek who get similarly wrapped up in their claustrophobic, perverse world…

Tartt is the recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Medal (as well as the Pulitzer – show off…) just as is Colson Whitehead for his 2017 book The Underground Railroad, an unflinching story set on a slave plantation in Georgia as the protagonists search for freedom via the underground railroad, in this imagining a very real network of train tracks to help enslaved people escape hell.

More than a century on, the protagonists of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage are a modern-day married couple also living in Georgia and also dealing with the pernicious effects of institutional racism as the husband, Roy, is wrongfully imprisoned.

And for modern-day relationships put under the microscope, no-one has done it better in recent years than Lisa Taddeo with Three Women, a journalistic tour-de-force charting the sex and love lives of three real American women in all their realness.

Thanks for reading my October Six Degrees! Have you read any of these? If you participate in the tag, where did your links take you?

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Top 10 Tuesday | Books on my autumn 2021 TBR

I think by now I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the dedication to read all the books I optimistically put on a TBR. Shiny new books pop up on my radar and distract me; life gets in the way. But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t resist a list, and it’s nice to have something to aspire to. If you’ve read and can recommend any of these, let me know!

An incandescent memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts readers in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?’

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.

(Yes, this is back on the TBR again and I’m determined to tackle it before the year is out!)

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years – from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding – that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms.’

Jennifer Egan’s cool, transcendent prose meets Karen Thompson Walker’s speculative eye in this luminous literary debut following two patients in recovery after an experimental memory drug warps their lives.

An incisive and exhilarating debut novel of female friendship following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group—the most unforgettable girls since Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.

‘Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.’
‘Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.’

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

(Another one back on the TBR, but I am still very interested in giving this a go).

An exciting blend of thriller, literary, memoir, and historical fiction – I feel good about this TBR pile! What’s coming up on your fall/autumn lists?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Book Review | Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I can’t even have the passing thought of the phrase ‘voice of a generation’ without wincing (thank you, Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls.)

My distaste for the expression aside, I’m struck by the way Sally Rooney captures our millennial anxieties, quite unlike anyone else (and believe me, I love a good millennial angst novel). The protagonists of Normal People were coming of age just after the 2008 recession, and here we see that same generation turning thirty and in the quagmire of how to live a life – a good, meaningful life – in the face of oblivion. Selfishly, I hope she never stops being that voice as our generation grows up and old.

‘Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.’

So onto the plot: Alice is a successful writer who’s recovering from a breakdown. Felix is her tinder date with no interest in books. Eileen is Alice’s best friend and editor at a literary journal. And Simon is the boy Eileen has been sort of in love with since she was 15.

Rooney is a master at depicting modern human interaction and the subtleties of communication, from political sparring to comedic riffing to sex – everything is rendered with absolute precision. You can’t look away, even through the exquisite anguish of watching the characters trip up again and again.

There’s a humming anxiety, ever-present – both spoken and unspoken, knowable and unknowable. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel this undercurrent of fractious energy, particularly in our pandemic world? In an epistolary tradition, Alice and Eileen write each other long and winding emails and chew over the unsolvable problems of our contemporary existence –

‘I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? …We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.’

I partly felt let down by Conversations with Friends because it lacked something – I didn’t think it really knew what to say, and was full of half-formed ideas. I can’t fault Beautiful World, Where Are You on those grounds –  there is so much psychological insight, blended with political and social and environmental unease, explored in acute detail. Even if the ideas aren’t themselves new – and Rooney isn’t pretending they are – she presents them as raw and real and an inextricable part of our modern condition.

Maybe it’s an impossible task – to make sense of our present historical moment, to make sense of who we are and what we mean to each other. We don’t always like the characters – that feels like her trademark by this point – but we don’t have to always like them to be invested in and captivated by the way they navigate the world.

I think it’s her best work so far – intimate, expressive, unflinching. If you’re on the fence – I know hype to this degree can be offputting – I hope you give it a try.

‘And out the windows the sky was still dimming, darkening, the vast earth turning slowly on its axis.’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Top Ten Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday | Books with numbers in the title

Welcome back to another Top Ten Tuesday! I love these creative themes and they always get me remembering books I’ve not thought about in forever. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so here we go…

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Since I recently read and adored The Kite Runner, this has just been bumped up my TBR.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I so enjoyed this journalistic tour de force, a deep dive into the love and sex lives of three real women. Check out my full review here.

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls

I know I’ve found a way to fit this into a top ten tuesday more than once, but I can’t help it. It’s so charming and moving and funny.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Back at the start of the pandemic, I was on a pandemic-book-themed reading sprint, and this was a very good addition to that oeuvre. Full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 – famously the temperature at which books burn (cannot confirm). Not a book that I loved like I’d hoped I would, but a worthwhile read none the less. Full review here.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books were the background to my mid-teen years, and while she doesn’t always get it right, she doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. And boy does that woman know how to write a page turner.

Slumdog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup

Is this pushing the boundaries of the theme? Quite possibly. But it’s close enough. I don’t remember all that much about this book, which I read over 10 years ago, but I enjoyed the film (if enjoy is the right word).

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve not read this nor do I really want to watch the TV adaptation, but I know it’s hugely popular and it fits the tag so here we are.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Rachel Cusk, and I think I would enjoy her writing, but I’ve not yet summoned up the strength to give it a go.

Thanks for reading!

Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson Book Review

Book Review | Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

It was time for a gear shift around here, after the emotional upheaval of last week’s reading.

Peter Swanson’s latest addition to the genre starts off the way any good thriller starts off: a hasty marriage to someone you don’t know that well. Abigail is living paycheck-to-paycheck, working in publishing in New York, when handsome, kind, and obscenely wealthy Bruce sweeps her off her feet. Things might be moving a little too fast, but before she knows it she’s said yes to the proposal and is off on her California bachelorette party with her girlfriends.

With one too many drinks in her system, and nagging doubts about the wiseness of her decision, she’s ready prey for a handsome stranger who charms her one evening after her friends have gone to bed. One thing leads to another, and they have a one-night stand. Wracked with guilt, Abigail returns to New York, determined to keep her infidelity a secret from Bruce and reassuring herself it was nothing but a drunk mistake.

‘Deep down, she knew that Bruce was more in love with her than she was with him. But wasn’t that the case with every couple? There was always one person in each relationship who cared a little more than the other. And wasn’t it better to be the person who cared less?’

The one-night stand man, who she calls Scottie (they didn’t reveal their real names to each other), is, as it turns out, quite unhinged. He tracks Abigail down and begs her not to marry Bruce. He’s lurking in the shadows on their wedding day. And then he shows up on the exclusive, remote island off the coast of Maine, where Bruce has taken her for the honeymoon.

This seemingly idyllic island has an oppressive, menacing quality to it. Swanson builds up the suspense and tension in a masterful way, a slowly creeping sense of dread coming over Abigail. At first there’s the fact that there’s no phone reception (sold as an ‘off the grid’ experience), an uncomfortable ratio of staff to actual guests, and almost no women. Then there’s the aforementioned stalker who also appears. And Abigail realises nothing is quite as it seems.

‘That whole day she felt like a chasm had opened up in front of her, a big black hole she was powerless to escape.’

I sometimes find with thrillers that the best bit is just before you know what’s happening. When all the cards are still to play for, when the narrative might go in any number of directions. Swanson does a great job at building up the menace in a propulsive way, and then he doesn’t really know what to do with it once the big reveal has happened. The plot goes a little bit wild and becomes less psychological thriller and veers more into horror territory. It’s cinematic in its unravelling, but not quite believable and not entirely wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Without giving anything away, there’s a clever and compelling commentary on the dangers of toxic masculinity, incel culture and radicalisation – an ever-increasing concern, particularly given tragic events like those in the UK last week. Mix these hateful beliefs with almost unlimited access to money and resources, and you have a very dangerous cocktail indeed.

I enjoyed this one – more so than the previous two, All The Beautiful Lies and Eight Perfect Murders. Nothing has yet measured up to The Kind Worth Killing – but as a page-turning, unpredictable thriller, I’d recommend Every Vow You Break. Even if you now have the Police song stuck in your head on repeat. 🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review | The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Amir is a young Afghan boy, born to a wealthy merchant father in 1960’s Kabul. And Afghanistan of the 60s and 70s has a haze of nostalgia to it – Amir lives a charmed childhood, flying kites, watching Hollywood Westerns, reading adventure stories to his best friend Hassan.

Of course, there’s a darkness simmering under the surface, as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of catastrophe – the monarchy falls, the Soviets invade – and, eventually, the tyrannical Taliban seize power. Within a few decades, nothing will be left; ‘the Afghanistan of our youth is long dead.’

But before all of this tragedy unfurls, Amir and Hassan are just kids. Hassan is the son of their household servant, and can’t attend school. Despite their close friendship and Amir’s objectively much better lot in life, Amir finds himself prickling with jealousy at his Baba’s fondness for Hassan. A complex figure, in equal parts imposing and charming, Amir longs for his father’s attention and approval. Since his mother died in childbirth, his father is the axis around which his life spins.   

Hassan is Amir’s unwavering loyal and devoted friend, forever his companion in the kite competitions that are a popular pastime for children in the city. But as a Hazara, a member of a persecuted minority, Hassan has a target on his head – and it’s not long before a shocking act of violence will change all their lives forever.

Decades later, Amir and Baba are thousands of miles away from the country of their birth. Refugees in California, they struggle to rebuild a life. For Amir, the guilt, grief, and cowardice he feels over what took place that fateful summer in Kabul will plague him forever.

‘Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before villages were burned and schools destroyed… Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.


America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.’

It’s not very often that a novel makes me weep, but this did it. Hosseini is an incredibly gifted storyteller, weaving together a novel that not only encompasses swathes of political and social history, but tells an incredibly moving and intimate story of a life. He doesn’t spare us from horror – life under the Taliban is gut-wrenchingly terrible – but this is also not a book without joy, hope, and redemption.

Something that will stay with me for a long, long time is the contrast between the old Afghanistan of Amir and Hassan’s youth, and the war-torn failed state that it has been for many decades – longer than I’ve been alive. The way in which a country can cease to exist – the obliteration of a culture, way of life, societal structure – committing current and future generations to a life of poverty, desperation, and torment, is horrifying and powerfully rendered in this book. I think back to more recent parallels with what’s happened in countries like Syria – once thriving, developed centres of culture, history, and commerce – reduced to physical and psychological ruins.

The last thing I’ll say about this extraordinary and explosive book is that it is not an intimidating read. Hosseini’s prose is sparing, controlled – and even though he weaves Farsi words throughout, it’s not at all alienating to the reader. It took me a decade of having this sat on the shelf – it’s made it through several transatlantic trips with an unbroken spine – before I picked it up last week, and it might be the best book so far this year.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Read if you enjoyed: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee