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October 19, 2020

In Shuggie Bain, A 15-Year-Old Glaswegian Boy Turns Caretaker For His Alcoholic Mother

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Photography by Joshua Navalkar

Douglas Stuart’s Booker-shortlisted debut novel tells a heart-aching story about the search for sexual identity amid parental dysfunction

Final

Shuggie Bain is about many things. Poverty, addiction, Glasgow in the ‘80s and queerness. It’s also a story of a mother and her son who is defined by his “gayness” and seen as “different” and “other”. It’s about the faith we put in people. What happens when a parent cannot love her child enough? How does that play out in a world where a mother’s love is almost always defined as “unconditional”?

Douglas Stuart’s debut as a published author had been in the works for a decade. How does a writer live with a story like this for ten years? Perhaps it is because the novel also reflects his life to some extent. Stuart is a Glaswegian (now living in New York), and the plot draws from his own childhood in Scotland around the same period the book is set in.

Shuggie is 15, living in a bed-sit (a shared space), working at a takeaway and, as I mentioned earlier, gay. He is shy and reclusive, and he is grappling with his identity. His mother, Agnes, is a beautiful woman, a hopeless romantic and an alcoholic. Shuggie is her little helper. Her other two children have abandoned her for a shot at a better life; it’s the youngest who wants to remain close and test his ability to love a damaged parent.

The book had me thinking about so many things. Poverty, helplessness, the decisions we take because there is no other way out, abandonment and, more than anything, about the redemptive power of love, which can also be brutal, but maybe you have to keep at it.

Have you ever stuck on and saved someone because you would, in turn, be saving yourself? Shuggie Bain is all about taking chances – if we get them. It isn’t only about abject material poverty but also about the emotional poverty of parents, which is quite grim. What happens when the child has to assume the role of a parent? What if it isn’t really the parent’s fault? What if the parent is trying hard as well but is unable to rise above the situation?

We never see Shuggie come into his own. He remains on the periphery, either taking care of his mother or wondering why he is the way he is. Stuart’s writing is sharp and beautiful, lovely even, despite the circumstances of his characters. It soars over the impoverishment, the hopelessness and the brokenness of Agnes and Shuggie’s relationship, always keeping love as its cornerstone. The book wrings every emotion out of you. Be prepared – I had to reach for a box of tissues. I didn’t realise it until the tears were already streaming down my face. Shuggie Bain is that kind of book. It takes you by the hand and then tears you apart.


In this column, Verve’s Culture Editor offers personal reflections and critical insights on a wide-ranging selection of literature. During the coming weeks, he will focus on this year’s Booker shortlist until November 17th, when the winning novel will be announced 

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