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
Jack tells more fully the story of Jack Boughton, whose tale was first alluded to in Robinson’s Gilead and whose fate was more fully explored in Home, which takes place chronologically after Jack. Jack is the hapless ne’er-do-well prodigal son in Home, but Jack explores his relationship with Della Miles, a romance with a young black woman that is forbidden in 1950’s Missouri.
Jack is living in St. Louis at the beginning of the novel, just barely hanging on to the fringes of society. He is drunk part of the time and owes money that he can’t repay. He is fresh out of jail and living in a cheerless rooming house.
He has already met Della at the beginning of the novel and has fallen instantly in love with her, but he is minutely aware of himself and his unsuitability. She is a young woman, educated, a schoolteacher, and she is black. It’s against the law for him to consort with her, and just being seen with him will ruin her reputation. For his part, he’s an older man, an ex-con, a bum.
Della gets accidentally locked in a cemetery one night where he sometimes sleeps. So, the first part of the novel is a long conversation at night.
Robinson is finely tuned to the condition of the human heart, as becomes obvious as we watch Jack, overly sensitive to every nuance of a situation. True to his upbringing by a devout Presbyterian minister, Jack frequently engages in theological discussions odd for an atheist. We watch Jack try to defeat his feelings for the sake of his beloved and fear that any small disappointment will send him on a downward spiral, for he is so fragile.
Robinson is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. Although these Gilead books can be difficult, they are rewarding.