Why I Loved Every Page of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart: A Review

image of the book cover for Shuggie Bain

Why I Loved Every Page of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart: A Review


Shuggie Bain was on my TBR for the rest of 2020 and book that I have been excited to get through since it came out. I bought my copy off the Exclusive Books website, this edition is published by Picador (Pan Macmillan SA).


About the Book:

Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of douard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.


“The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering below. The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated about the aisles and through only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.” (page 1)


This book found me after it won the Booker. You might call me a sheep for following Shuggie Bain only as after it was shortlisted… but what can a girl do? Lately, there have been many books baying for my attention and, honestly, I’m glad I listed to the hype around this particular title because it is an absolute revelation.

It has everything a reader could ask for in a novel.

From the very first line, Shuggie Bain created an immersiveness that I haven’t experienced from anything outside of the fantasy genre in a long time. I was immediately transported into Shuggie’s world, sitting in a chair in his room in 1992 somewhere in the South Side. The accented language of the Scottish dialogue and the descriptive scenes really add to the visceral scenes and the lives these characters lead. From that very first moment, I went along with Douglas Stuart and, if I’m honest, Stuart could lead me to my own death and I’d be accepting of it. Here is an author who can take the reader through some of the world’s most depraved scenes, its most sincere heart-warming moments — all because the writing is just something so spectacular.

The story of Shuggie and his mother isn’t an easy one. Life is both brutal and traumatic for these two lovely people and, while she may not seem it, I feel that Agnes Bain is a truly magnificent woman — addiction and all — and, if you don’t walk away feeling the same thing about this flawed woman, then Douglas Stuart hasn’t done his job.

Agnes is the perfect antagonist and protagonist, she is the epitome of starting over and showing up to the world in a way that you simply don’t see when it’s left ‘behind closed doors’. From her dyed immaculate hair, her dress and false teeth, Agnes Bain becomes the character you want her to be which, in the end, she really isn’t. You find yourself rooting for her to get beat her addiction, to fix her family and to find a wholesome and wonderful life — but, ultimately, she just doesn’t do that for you. As a character, she is so deeply insecure, wearing her heart on her sleeve and, at her core, all she wants is someone to love her and, though he tries, Shuggie’s love simply isn’t enough in the end.

Shuggie, on the other hand, is a wonderful foil for Agnes’ chaos. He is everything a good son should be and, in the end, he sacrifices his childhood for Agnes and her addiction, simply because she is his mother and he loves her. He is both endearing and imperfect as a character and, through the wonderful recounting of this story through his eyes, the reader is given this childish (yet deeply honest look) at the world he is living in, as he watches his siblings give up on their mother and the hurt that follows them around thereafter.

I found myself wanting this book to end for the simple fact that I wanted to know whether Shuggie got his happy ending but, in the same breath, I couldn’t bear to finish it because I didn’t want to leave this boy behind. Shuggie, with his parted hair, his childish gleam and queerness, captivated me for a week after work as well as on the weekend.

Shuggie Bain is, in my opinion, a strong contender for book of the year and, sorry-not-sorry, it’s a book deserving of another full-mark review for me. I cannot fault it.


5 out of 5 stars


If you have read Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, please let me know in the comments what you thought, and if you agree with my review.


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Happy Reading, all!