Get Lit! “Shuggie Bain” review

In January, our ‘Get Lit’ book club met for the second time, this time to discuss Shuggie Bain written by Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize for fiction. Although the novel explores a dark narrative, Stuart’s quality writing made for an engaging read that captured (some of!) our hearts.

The novel can be described as a dysfunctional coming of age story set in Glasgow during the 1980s. We follow a young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain from early childhood through to his teen years as he struggles to get by in Scotland during the Thatcher-era plagued with poverty, violence and alcoholism. Shuggie faces the additional burden of coming to terms with his sexuality and not fitting the same mould as others in his community. Stuart expertly explores toxic relationships with Agnes Bain’s character, Shuggies mother who turned to alcoholism after being abandoned by her husband. Agnes’ addiction destroys what is left of her family. With Shuggie’s older siblings leaving home, Shuggie is entrusted with his mother’s care at an age where he still needs nurturing. Despite everything, Shuggie is fiercely protective of Agnes and believes that his unwavering love will cure her demons.

As a group, we praised Stuart’s ability to write settings and characters with such deep empathy.  Comparisons with the darkness of “Angela’s Ashes” were made.  Stuart perfectly captures the horrors engraved in the working class during Thatcher’s reign.  Thatcher, of course, also had a hugely detrimental impact on the lives of young LGBT+ people in particular with her introduction of section 28 which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and schools, resulting in schools and libraries banning books and halting discussions. 

Although our hearts broke for Shuggie, it was impossible to not feel sympathy for Agnes. Many of us interpreted her downfall as a domino effect of the fractured society she lives in. We were happy to find moments of humour and humanity through the heartbreak, often at times where it was least expected.

We were charmed by the Glasgow dialect and slang seen throughout the novel. Those who listened to the audiobook commented on how they enjoyed the narrator’s portrayal of each character from how they spoke and the accent used.

We would recommend this book for lovers of immersive settings and in-depth character studies. While it certainly isn’t an easy read, we found an intimate story with memorable characters beneath the grimness and struggle.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

If you are interested in joining the ‘Get Lit’ book club please email info@outlawnetwork.ie. We welcome all suggestions for future reads, both fiction and non-fiction, LGBT+ or not, Irish or international authors, or whatever piques your interest.

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