Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Grove Press (Oct, 2020)
Shuggie Bain is the story of a lonely boy growing up gay in a run-down public housing area of 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. His broken family, due in large part to his alcoholic mother, is on the dole and trying to survive the mother’s destructive lifestyle. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, dreams of a better life, a life of money and love and beautiful things, but her drinking only digs her and her children deeper into debt and misery. Shuggie is the youngest of three children, and the only one who accepts and tolerates his mother. He understands his mother because he is very much like her—someone who takes pride in her looks while all of her peers ridicule her. He does everything he can to keep Agnes going, hoping that someday his philandering taxi-driving father will return to lift them up into a better life. But as Agnes increasingly finds solace in drink, the older children abandon their home to find their own way, leaving Shuggie to care for his mother as her alcoholic binges bring on more destructive mood swings. Agnes is supportive of her son, even knowing the boy is gay. But her addiction eclipses everyone around her, including Shuggie.
A distressing story of surviving in an unsympathetic world where addiction, betrayal, sexuality, loneliness, and love assault you every day. Shuggie Bain is a portrayal of a working-class, dysfunctional family that is rarely seen in fiction. It is a searing debut by a talented novelist who tells an honest and powerful story.
I loved and hated this story. It is a heartbreaking tale that kept reminding me of my own lonely dysfunctional childhood, bringing up one painful memory after another. And yet, the voice was so unique and so compelling that I fell in love with this story. I could not put it down. I’ve heard many people say this book was too repetitive, and there is much of that. However, having lived in a dysfunctional family, that repetition rings true. Over and over as one sees hope, one is knocked down again. That’s why I think this is a story of survival.
This debut novel was a well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award.