Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

With Canberra back in lockdown for the first time since the middle of last year, Minerva pivoted (to use current Covid-19 jargon) to meeting via Zoom again. Fortunately, having now experienced Zoom meetings in various aspects of our lives for well over a year, and under the expert chairing of Kate, the meeting ran smoothly. This is just as well, because we had plenty to say about our book, Douglas Bain's Booker prize-winning, Shuggie Bain.

The novel tells the story of a young working class boy and his mother in struggling working class Glasgow during the 1980s. It's about what happens when love and dreams of a better life meet poverty and alcoholism.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Struggled with the story, because of its bleakness and brutality, and could only read it when the sun was shining. But appreciated the humour, liked the highly visual descriptions, and thought it explored well themes like violence versus tenderness and love.  
  • Found it an impressive account of many issues and ideas. Found it bleak at first, but it became unputdownable. Thought it was very much about love, and liked Stuart's comment in his ABC interview that "Art is meant to move you".
  • Chose not to read it because of its potential to trigger vicarious trauma, but was interested to hear our discussion. 
  • Having experienced female alcoholics in her family is unsympathetic to alcoholics, and wished Agnes had "tossed in the towel earlier"! But, loved the writing. 
  • Had to put it down often because the evocation of poverty is so sad, but loved the interview with Stuart as he came across as such a positive man. Liked that the ending was somewhat positive.  
  • Was initially hesitant, because feared vicarious trauma, but thinks the novel is a masterpiece. Couldn't put it down. Liked that it was peppered with humour, and its portrayal of children's love for parents. 
  • Found it both devastating and brilliant (even though had just read another devastating story, Educated). Felt it was accurate about the period (1980s Glasgow). Was really moved. 
  • Greatly enjoyed it for its descriptive writing, the humour, and the warmth and respect towards its characters. It was bleak, but heart sank most when Shuggie and his mother arrived back in the city, and Shuggie, watching young children play, wonders “what it must feel like ... to be so carefree”. It was so clear that Shuggie had never had that.  
  • A tricky novel, but mesmerising, immersive, and made you feel as though you were there. Some reviews suggested it could have done with more editing, but doesn't agree because the detail is important to our understanding of the life. The novel redefines love. 
  • Agrees with everyone else. Loved that it started with Shuggie at nearly 16 because you knew he was going to survive. Masterful management of darkness and light, and loved all the Scottish terms. A very visual book. Shuggie kept you going. Thought Eugene was mean and nasty in encouraging Agnes to have a drink. 
  • So glad she read it. Brought up important issues, and its truth to domestic violence and alcoholism were spot on. 

Further discussion

The discussion that followed was lively, with many ideas being explored:


We explored the different types of humour in the novel, with some finding more humour in it than others. One saw the "cackling" laughter of the Pithead women as a distancing mechanism. Another felt there were many humorous scenes, such as Leek teaching Shuggie how to walk.

Alcoholism and addiction

We discussed many issues regarding alcoholism. Regarding Eugene and the question of whether he was better than Shug, one member argued that Eugene wasn't mean when he encouraged Agnes to have a drink. She suggested that he didn't understand and genuinely believed that in a stable loving relationship, Agnes would be able to drink, like a "normal" person. Another confirmed that the encouragement to drink is a very common challenge that recovering alcoholics have to face. One member commented that Eugene felt badly about what he'd done and tried hard to support the family with food for some time after.

Another member wondered how an alcoholic like Agnes managed to maintain a nice house, but another suggested that Agnes and her family had a high degree of "emotional intelligence". Some of us weren't sure that emotional intelligence is the relevant term, but we did note that Agnes and family came from Wullie and Lizzie who seemed to have a good handle on life. 

Where, we wondered, did the alcoholism come from?

We also discussed the references to Valium, and the fact that it was mentioned but not really developed in the novel.

A member mentioned Jimmy Barnes' memoir Working class boy, which starts in Glasgow and describes a life surrounded by drink and drunkenness. As we all agreed, the Thatcher era was a grim time in Glasgow, particularly for men with mines closing down resulting in loss of work and their roles in life.


Of course, we talked a lot about Agnes and why she was the way she was. She "wanted and wanted and wanted". Why? She had aspirations for a better life. Was this simply because she was spoilt, as her father Wullie came to think she was?

One member suggested that the book is partly about dreams and aspirations. Both mother and daughter had aspirations. So, really, did Leek. For all her faults, Agnes was admirable for her resourcefulness and her ongoing attempts against so many odds to maintain face against a harsh world. Her story was heartbreaking.

We also noted how neither of her two husbands - Bernard and Shug - wanted her to work, and yet her work at the petrol station, when she was in recovering mode, gave her pleasure and self-worth. She was happy when she was working. Another of the book's themes is gender, and the lack of power and opportunity for women.

We discussed Agnes' relocation with her family to Pithead, a dying mining town where few had jobs, and how desolate the place was. Shug, we agreed, was truly cruel in taking her there with every intention of leaving her. One member did say however that alcoholics do move, that they are "geographic", believing things will be better when they move.


Our conversation about Shuggie roamed around a bit. We talked about his life, and his dedication to saving his mother. One member commented on the scene near the end where he undresses his mother, and also where he fixes Leanne's mother's dress. These felt very real, as though Douglas had experienced it. As this novel has strong autobiographical elements, we felt he had.

One member raised the death scene, Chapter 31, and wondered whether there's a suggestion that Shuggie could have saved Agnes but chose not to. Most of us, however, didn't read it that way.

Shuggie Bain is, in part, a coming-of-age novel, but he's also queer. From the beginning, there is an underlying idea that he's "no right", and he is mercilessly teased for his difference from a very young age. When he is 10, he asks his mother, "What's wrong with me Mammy?" From her answer, it's not clear to us that she knows, but he does realise at the end of the novel that his brother Leek has always known. We suspected that his father Shug also knew which is why he never appeared to like him.

One member, thinking of Raimond Gaita's memoir, Romulus my father, wondered what gave Shuggie his resilience. We didn't have many answers, but wondered whether his grandfather Wullie's early love and support, and Leek's being there, contributed. Some felt he'd inherited his mother's propensity to dream.

It was interesting, we though, that, despite their upbringing with Agnes, none of the children seemed to become alcoholics.

Some mentioned feeling sorry for Shuggie living alone in the boarding house at the end. It was helpful, we thought, that he didn't have overweening confidence, because it meant that he listened to others, such as Leek, unlike his mother who took little advice. We liked that the book ended with Shuggie having a friend, in Leanne, who also had an alcoholic mother. It enables the book to close on a sense of hope.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, or "autofiction", and we saw some similarities with Trent Dalton's Boy swallows universe (our review). We suspected that Stuart's story can be found in both Leek (both Stuart and Leek were accepted into a Fine Arts course) and Shuggie (Stuart, like Shuggie, did do his best to care for his mother until she died.)

Bibs and bobs

Besides the above issues, we talked about several other topics too. Our book trade member commented on how lucky Stuart was to get his Scottish dialect past the editors, as publishers tend to dislike language that might challenge readers. (In his ABC interview, Stuart talked about how important it was for him to use the language of people who rarely find themselves in literature, partly so that they might read it.

One member who had listened to Stuart reading excerpts from his book, said he made it sound like poetry.

We wondered about Shuggie's older siblings, Catherine and Leek, having no contact with their father.

One member commented that debut Booker prize winners, like Keri Hulme's The bone people and DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, tend to be gritty. She wondered where they go next.

We talked about the impact of winning prizes on sales. Our booktrade person said that the Booker and Miles Franklin are the biggest awards in Australia in terms of generating sales, but this rarely means they will sell better than popular writers like Liane Moriarty. 


In the end we thought Shuggie Bain was a visceral but deeply moving novel about industrial Glasgow and region during Thatcher's 1980s, about alcoholism and the ravages it visits upon sufferers and their families, and about the deep love and loyalty children have for their parents and that siblings can have for each other.

Present: 11 members