There was something about this book that from the get go, I knew it would be one I instantly love. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a glass half empty book with heart wrenching themes and very few happy endings. I felt like Shuggie Bain was a mix of A Little Life and The Heart's Invisible Furies (both of which are two of my all time favorite books.) It brought forth the darkness of life (A Little Life) mixed with Shuggie's demeanor and just a sliver of hope (The Heart's Invisible Furies.) This book is not for everyone, but for those that love a strong, character driven novel that realistically and, and with witty prose, focuses on the dark side of life, check out Shuggie Bain. I took my time with this one and really savored every word because this is one you won't want to rush through.
Hugh "Shuggie" Bain is a sweet and lonely boy who spends most of his childhood looking after his alcoholic mother and alternating between housing units in Glasgow, Scotland. Set in the 1980's, Shuggie grabbles with a deep seeded feeling that he is different from his peers. Shuggie's mother, Agnes, is a beautiful woman who idolizes Elizabeth Taylor and often covers up her drunkenness' and hangovers with thick makeup and hairspray. Shuggie does all that he can to take care of her, while also grabbling with hunger, poverty, bullying, and his own sexuality.
Shuggie Bain is sad, layered upon sad, with more sad, and a teeny tiny bit of possible hope at the end. This book is not for everyone. If you are not a fan of sad, literary novels, especially those revolved around children of parents with substance abuse problems with little to no light at the end of the tunnel/happy ending, Shuggie Bain might not be for you. Personally, I love books like this and A Little Life, because they are so honest and unflinching about how life isn't always perfect for everyone.
The dialogue was a little difficult to understand at first because it is written in a Glasgow accent. Just a different way of talking and different word choices than what I am typically used to. Once I got used to it, I felt like I could truly immerse myself in the novel. The dialogue made me slow down and really savor this book which I believe is the author's intent. Stuart dives into such deep and dark topics, such as addiction, abandonment, dependency, and sexuality, that as a reader, you need to take your time to fully absorb his message.
Shuggie is up there with Cyril Avery as one of my favorite literary characters of all time. The entire time, I wanted to wrap him up in a warm embrace. So many parts broke my heart and I ached for Shuggie. I love when an author can craft a character that feels so real that I honestly form an emotional connection. Agnes on the other hand was such a conflicting character. While I rooted for her and wanted her to conquer her addiction, she had such a strong dependency on men that drove her deeper into her addiction. Agnes was always seeking a man that could pull her out of her darkness, fix her up, and give her and her children the life they deserved. I won't give away any spoilers, but ugh, did I want to throw this book at the wall sometimes.
Shuggie Bain was a solid five star read for me, but does have content warnings, so please read those if you want to be aware. This book is not for the faint of heart.
Content warnings: alcoholism, sexual assault, child neglect and abuse
"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."
Read if you liked:
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
*Click the title links to read my full reviews*