Shuggie Bain is set in Glasgow, which bore the brunt of Thatcher’s monetarist policies. The story begins in 1981 when Shuggie (Scottish for Hugh) is around five-years-old, and ends in 1992, when he asserts that he is above 16 – roughly coinciding with Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as UK’s Prime Minister.
So, when the blurb (quoting the Observer) says: “Heartbreakingly good” you set yourself up to reading a grim tale about a mother’s soul-bruising deterioration as an alcoholic, and the dog-like, unquestioning devotion of Shuggie, her youngest son-turned-caregiver at the tender age of 13. And, the whole narrative is “complicated” by Shuggie’s teenage struggle to come to terms with his ambiguous sexuality – his attempts at understanding his “difference” runs apace with his mother’s progressive loss of any sense of the world around her. It is a story of love beyond hope, of hope beyond trust, and trust beyond a love that increasingly ceased to have any meaning to everybody else, except Shuggie.
Shuggie’s father declares: “I can’t stay with you. … All that drinking,” and he walks out; Stuart describes the scene so vividly (“like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”), the image lingers in your mind for a long time.
Her drinking worsens … the eldest daughter “escapes” to South Africa, the elder son moves out, hoping to make a career for himself. Shuggie stays on. There is also a hope that a new found love will get her through.
In the mean time, Shuggie gets into school – is ridiculed for his “difference” and his “proper” language, sadly reminiscent of Blanch DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire. But, regardless of what life throws at him, Shuggie’s devotion to his mother is absolute: No matter that he has to stand in line for the weekly dole where his mother should have been; no matter that he had to pry coins out of the gas meter for his daily meals.
The dark landscape around them is marked by dunes of coal dust, and abandoned mines – remains of a once proud community. Glasgow standing among its ruins just as Agnes stands through her poverty and misery. And, then there is he almost-colourful depiction of the wise-cracking women who carry on with their lives with their broken husbands. Agnes is a victim of sexual abuse too – while Shuggie hopes to “save” her … and he clings to this hope till the end ... in spite of all the selfishness he sees around him.
There’s sadness all around, and misery. There’s pervasive poverty and hopelessness. But there’s resilient hope and there’s uncompromising love – which takes the book out of the ordinary.
In short: The book is depressingly heart-warming. Another of those “sweetest songs that tell of saddest thought”.
Book: Shuggie Bain
Author: Douglas Stuart
Price: Rs 499