Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart review – lithe, revelatory debut | The Guardian

This heart-rending novel set in 1980s Glasgow is deservedly on the Booker longlist and may even give Mantel a run for her moneyOne of several surprises in a tendentious Booker longlist was the number of debut authors selected – eight of the 13 novels are by first-timers, the largest share in the 51-year history of the prize. It has also raised hackles that nine of the books are by Americans. Douglas Stuart, author of the longlisted debut Shuggie Bain, may hold an American passport, but his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart. I first read the book as part of the selection process for the Observer’s annual January lookahead to the best first novels of the year. It sang then and returning to it now has been a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality, and could even give Dame Hilary a run for her money when it comes to the Booker’s final knockings in October.While Hugh “Shuggie” Bain may give his name to the title of the book, it is as much about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, and her damaged, doomed attempts to be a wife and mother amid the booze-soaked brutality of 1980s Glasgow. The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager eking out a life alone in a bedsit, dreaming of going to hairdressing college while stuck working on a grimy supermarket deli counter. Then we spool back a decade, to 1981, when Shuggie is just a boy and lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, is a taxi driver and a Protestant (Agnes’s family is Catholic). He’s a wheedling, charming, violent man: “slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic”. The novel moves in leaps through the 80s as we follow Shuggie and Agnes (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the family) as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, the misery of their surroundings. Continue reading…

This heart-rending novel set in 1980s Glasgow is deservedly on the Booker longlist and may even give Mantel a run for her money

One of several surprises in a tendentious Booker longlist was the number of debut authors selected – eight of the 13 novels are by first-timers, the largest share in the 51-year history of the prize. It has also raised hackles that nine of the books are by Americans. Douglas Stuart, author of the longlisted debut Shuggie Bain, may hold an American passport, but his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart. I first read the book as part of the selection process for the Observer’s annual January lookahead to the best first novels of the year. It sang then and returning to it now has been a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality, and could even give Dame Hilary a run for her money when it comes to the Booker’s final knockings in October.

While Hugh “Shuggie” Bain may give his name to the title of the book, it is as much about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, and her damaged, doomed attempts to be a wife and mother amid the booze-soaked brutality of 1980s Glasgow. The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager eking out a life alone in a bedsit, dreaming of going to hairdressing college while stuck working on a grimy supermarket deli counter. Then we spool back a decade, to 1981, when Shuggie is just a boy and lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, is a taxi driver and a Protestant (Agnes’s family is Catholic). He’s a wheedling, charming, violent man: “slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic”. The novel moves in leaps through the 80s as we follow Shuggie and Agnes (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the family) as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, the misery of their surroundings.

Continue reading…


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