The moment I finished Shuggie Bain, I tried reaching out to the few people I know who care about reading. I wanted to tell them, “Quick, here, go, read this book”. I did not stop until one friend responded back with, “OK, but what did you like about the book so much?”.
My friend had asked me an honest, curious question – she was not trying to stop me in my tracks. Though, it did make me stop and wonder: Exactly what was it that I loved about this book so much? That is the problem with this book: how do you recommend such a depressing book to anyone? I think, the only apt description I have been able to do is: depressing, sad yet beautiful.
The story is based in 80s Glasgow and truthfully, I had no idea about the socioeconomic conditions in Scotland (or the UK) at that time. I made no attempt to educate myself about it. My only connection with Scotland is a band called “Texas”, led by a wonderful woman called Sharleen Spiteri (on whom I have seriously considered naming my daughters).
This is a story about Agnes, Shuggie’s mother as much as it is about Shuggie. It is a story of Agnes’ alcoholism as much as it is about Shuggie’s devotion to Agnes.
Shuggie is introduced to us as a fifteen year old, living alone in a boarding house in Glasgow. The story then goes back to the early 80s when Shuggie is five, and moves on from there. Shuggie grows as a child, witnessing his mother’s growing dependency on alcohol. Amidst all of this, Shuggie is trying to understand his own conflicted self, as he is gay. But, despite everything, Shuggie’s devotion to his mother is solid as a rock.
However simplistic it may sound, the characters of this story are anything but that. These are complex characters in the story and it is inevitable that most of them are based on real life – the primary two characters (Agnes and Shuggie) based on the author’s mother and the author himself.
Douglas Stuart spent 10 years writing this and his prose flows seamlessly. The manuscript was rejected by over 30 (!) publishers. In an interview, Douglas said that a few publishers who rejected this knew exactly that this book was a winner but had no idea how to sell this book to the American audience. It’s a shame really – I grew up in India and had no idea about the socioeconomic situation in 1980s Scotland and yet, could connect so well with this book. I think, maybe, these book publishers do not know their audience so well, after all.
While reading this book and seeing the characters grow, I had a strong enough feeling that this isn’t going to end so well. It isn’t like you are rooting for Agnes or Shuggie. One of the many things I loved about this book was how carefully Douglas handled these characters. For example, as Shuggie is growing up, he understands that he is not like normal boys (since he is gay). He is bullied by other boys and does everything to be “normal”, but the author never lets that overpower the overall narrative of the book. Yes, Shuggie has problems with identifying with his sexuality but Shuggie also had even bigger problems – he was practically guarding his mother every-time she spiraled into the deeper pits of various kinds of alcohol.
So, overall, a very touching book – something that will remain with me for a very long time. It is the kind of book that has kept me thinking days after I have put it down. And I am still pinging people and telling him, “Quick, here, go, read this book”.