There’s nothing I can say about Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize winning novel, Shuggie Bain, that hasn’t already been said. Know that I laughed, I cried, and I ached for Shuggie, his alcoholic mother, Agnes, and his siblings. This story is raw and tender and hopeful and heartbreakingly sad.
In my tradition of not reviewing books that have a squillion reviews on Goodreads, I have instead put together a mix tape, drawing on some favourite passages in the book. Needless to say, I had dozens to choose from in Shuggie.
5/5 Shuggie has my heart.
I received my copy of Shuggie Bain from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Cold Water | Damien Rice & Lisa Hannigan
Rain was the natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial.
Drink With Me | Les Misérables
Wullie and Shuggie were sitting at the round dining table eating soft eggs and soldiers. Sixty years apart, they were huddled together in the far corner like old drinking pals.
Sad Songs | Elton John
Sadness made for a better houseguest; at least it was quiet, reliable, consistent.
No More I Love Yous | Annie Lennox
He saw…his funny little brother, hungry and fearful, while his mother sat with her head in the oven.
Island of Lost Souls | Blondie
To Shuggie, the aunties who came to visit were often worse. It was like Agnes’s worse qualities went out and found a friend.
Glory Days | Bruce Springsteen
Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl. “She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.”
Man Overboard | Do Re Mi
Shuggie arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork. He knew this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones. He leaned over and listened to her breathing. Her breath was stale with cigarettes and sleep, and so he went to the kitchen and filled a fourth mug with bleach for her teeth. He tore a page from his ‘Popes of the Empire’ homework and wrote in soft pencil: DANGER! Teeth Cleaner. Do not drink. Don’t even sip by accident.
Rumor Has It | Adele
She felt the breeze of a thousand net curtains twitching.
When All Is Said And Done | ABBA
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.
Lonely Together | Barry Manilow
…Shuggie sat by her feet like a quiet shadow. He watched without talking while she drank from the bottomless tea mug. She told him bad stories of his father again, picking up the tale like it was a book she had only set to the side for a year.
Don’t Leave Me On My Own | Chris Isaak
“Shit. Your balls will be dropping soon. Look it won’t be for that long. Just a wee while longer, till you can go too.”
Shuggie’s head pulled back on his neck in disgust. “Then who will look after her?”
“Well. She’ll have to look after herself.”
“Then how will she ever get better?”
Live It Up | Mental As Anything
There were other times she fell sober because she had no choice. On the weeks when all the benefit money was gone, and no man would bring her a carry-out, then a type of grudging sobriety would start. If that happened on a Thursday, then her sobriety had a four-day running start. Shuggie always rooted for it. But the drink rarely lost. It was like a bully who gave Agnes that running start in the grinning confidence he would catch her easily, and she’d be battered again when the benefit book was cashed again the following Monday. Still, Shuggie always fell for it.