Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain lives the first five or six years of his life in his grandparents’ flat in Glasgow with parents and older sister Catherine and brother Leek. The family is poor but respectable. His father Shug is a taxi driver, and his mother and grandmother keep a neat house. Shuggie’s mother Agnes is beautiful and always immaculately made up.

Shug is a horrible womanizer, though, and from jealousy Agnes hounds him by making calls to his dispatcher. Then Shug decides they should move to get a fresh start. What he describes as an outdoor paradise turns out to be a tiny shack next to a mine in a neighborhood built for miners’ families. But the mine is all but closed. It isn’t until the family unloads their possessions that they realize Shug’s aren’t among them. He has taken Agnes and her children out into the country to dump them.

Agnes descends into alcoholism, and as his older siblings grow old enough to leave, Shuggie is left trying to hide money for food, trying to keep Agnes’s drinking buddies out of the house, trying to get her to eat. All the while, he has a growing realization that he’s not like other boys. He likes pretty things and colors and is attracted to boys.

This novel is a moving and empathetic portrait of working-class Glasgow in the 1980’s, when there is not much hope for many people. It’s also a convincing depiction of the effects of alcoholism. It is absolutely gripping and heartbreaking. It was the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it deserves it.

A Little Life

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Crow Lake

12 thoughts on “Review 1822: Shuggie Bain

  1. Jane March 23, 2022 / 10:02 am

    Although I’ve heard of Shuggie Bain I didn’t know what it was about, it sounds well worth reading and I’ve put it on my list!

    • whatmeread March 23, 2022 / 10:07 am

      I think you’ll be glad you did.

  2. Cynthia March 23, 2022 / 11:19 am

    This one has been on my list for a long time, and now I’m newly inspired to read it. In his wonderful book, Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, Dan Rubinstein visits Glasgow and walks with groups there that have organized to walk the city and transform their depression via that activity. Fascinating.

    • whatmeread March 23, 2022 / 2:50 pm

      This is a very good book. That other one sounds interesting, too.

  3. piningforthewest March 23, 2022 / 3:00 pm

    I skimmed this post as I have it very close to the top of my reading pile so should get around to it soon. I’m glad you liked it.

  4. FictionFan March 23, 2022 / 7:27 pm

    I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to read any more books about Glasgow and alcoholism – we seem to be as obsessed with writing about it as we are with getting drunk, perhaps more so! But I know this book has had loads of praise and I’m glad it worked for you. I wish somebody would write a book showing Glasgow in a positive light one of these days though… sometimes we even have fun! 😉

    • whatmeread March 23, 2022 / 7:43 pm

      It is mostly about the boy and his sense of himself, although of course, it has a lot about what he has to do about his mother’s condition. I didn’t really see it as showing Glasgow in a negative light.

    • whatmeread March 23, 2022 / 7:45 pm

      Or to be more exact in what I said, it’s a Difficult Life book, and people have difficult lives everywhere, in every social stratum, in every culture.

      • FictionFan March 24, 2022 / 12:44 am

        Indeed! But just once I’d like an author to write a book about a Glaswegian who enjoys life! 😉

  5. Naomi April 5, 2022 / 1:31 pm

    Despite how heartbreaking this sounds, I’d really like to read it!

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