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FICTION Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Powerful evocation of family in thrall to the demon drink

GLASGOW and drink are often in the news, usually as a statistic, sometimes as a dark joke.

Douglas Stuart’s Booker-nominated debut novel is a slow-burn effort to tell the story of an alcoholic mother that dramatises the relationship between the Scottish city and the social ills that turn people into heavy, hopeless drinkers.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest son, the Shuggie Bain of the title.

But our gaze, following his, is centred on Agnes, his mother — because of her addiction, there can only really be one protagonist in the Bain family.

Shuggie’s sister, Catherine, is a surrogate mother for a time but finally escapes Scotland.

His brother, Leek, takes over until he, too, is flung from the orbit of chaos and decline.

Then Shuggie is left alone to share in his mother’s torment.

Agnes is beautiful, bright, proud and passionate by nature and tragically unlucky with men.

Stuart lays on all the evils that come with familial breakdown but the portrayal of domestic, sexual and child abuse is realistic and nuanced and never for shock value.

Shuggie’s sexual awakening as a young gay man is woven deftly into the plot, strengthening his bond with Agnes while leaving him friendless at school and exposed on the city’s mean streets.   

Two other protagonists loom large. Glasgow during the ’80s — especially the grimmer edges — is a fully realised character.

Without indulging in writerly lyricism, Stuart has us feel the chill winds around Sighthill, with its slab tower blocks and experience the tramp through the marshy wasteland around a run-down mining suburb called Pithead, where the central section of the novel unfolds.  

Sectarianism rears its ugly head all the time, along with unemployment and economic hardship.

The poorest Glaswegians have scant defences at their disposal besides humour and raw intelligence, which come alive in a faithful rendering of local dialect, or an occasional big night out.

Alcohol is the other lead actor. It entertains, deceives, lies, and sometimes tells the truth.

Its addictive nature is only marginally worse than this ability to morph into what people need from it.

One decent man after many misalliances and a few good AA friends hints at potential routes to salvation.

But drink almost always wins: “It was like a bully who gave Agnes that running start in the grinning confidence he would catch her easily.”  

Comparisons with Trainspotting are inevitable. Stuart’s novel is set in the other Scottish city and it too explores addiction.

But Irvine Welsh’s novel was a comedy of excess, while Shuggie Bain is a drama about everyday tragedy.

Lager and vodka can take a long time to wear down a woman in her thirties and to destroy a family.

There’s no heroin rush, larking in the streets or listening to Iggy Pop in bedsits.

If this novel is recursive at times — and it is 400-plus pages long — that’s because the gradual but inexorable nature of a drinker’s decline is its chief plotline.

Indeed, some of the most soul-sapping sections are where Agnes gets on the wagon for days or weeks at a time and things begin to look up.

Too bleak to be uplifting and too realistic to have a message or moral for the reader, this novel engages with its sincerity.

Stuart says he spent 10 years working on Shuggie Bain, often writing while during commutes into New York, where he has lived for two decades.

The craft that has gone into the prose honours the hours of labour and suggests a painstaking effort to be accurate and true.

Love, which cannot save Agnes, is at the heart of the story and is the only light that shines through the endless rains and cold summers of Shuggie Bain’s long childhood.

Published by Picador, £14.99.

CHRIS MOSS

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