Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Picador, 2020, 451 p.

Shuggie Bain cover

Firstly, I can understand why this won 2020’s Booker Prize. It’s very well written – and its subject matter, alcoholism, is one of those such prizes historically find worthy of honour. But the devil is in the detail. Most readers would probably have no problem here, but for me personally, the detail detracted from the overall experience. It wasn’t that there was a lot of USian usages – annoying though that can be, it would be fair enough in this case, Stuart has lived in the US for twenty years and the book was first published there – but some of that did not ring true to its West of Scotland setting, even though it was peppered with Scottish words such as crabbit and weans and is otherwise very recognisable. Neither is it the case that Picador simply went with the original transatlantic text; colour is spelled the British way and the characters wear trousers, not pants, but crucially some of the dialogue has USian phrases which Scottish speakers simply would not utter. Moreover, ‘zipper’ for ‘zip,’ ‘prior’ for ‘before’ and ‘aluminum,’ being untrue to its milieu, immediately haul a British reader completely out of the tale.

The novel is told in five sections, topped and tailed by “1992 The South Side” with “1981 Sighthill,” “1982 Pithead” and “1989 The East End” sandwiched between them. The first and last are relatively short, dealing with Shuggie Bain’s first steps in life without his mother Agnes. Sighthill was where Agnes had gone back to live with her mother and father having divorced her first husband, Brendan McGowan, to take up with Shuggie’s father, (big) Shug. This is a source of contention as Agnes’s family is Catholic and Shug is not. Pithead is the village to which Shug hauls the family off before abandoning them while the East End is where Agnes and Shuggie move to in his young adolescence.

Stuart makes much of the fact of Agnes’s Catholicism and the differences she perceives between her own diffidence and the apparent easy confidence of Protestants. I found it odd, though, that her mother Lizzie and Agnes herself should refer to Brendan as “that Catholic” and “the Catholic” rather than the more natural “Brendan.” At one point Agnes reveals Brendan only wanted a slave and a housekeeper. By contrast Shug is charismatic even though balding. He is also an inveterate womaniser, not the least of Agnes’s triggers for alcoholism.

The novel is an acute (the usual word deployed in these circumstances is unflinching) examination of alcoholism and its effect on Shuggie’s family. Even though she likes to keep herself as immaculately dressed as possible, loves her children and would do anything for them, nothing gets in the way of Agnes’s need for booze. The constant need to be alert, the awareness of the slightest nuance, the necessity to guard against Agnes harming herself, drive away both Shuggie’s sister, Catherine, and brother, Alexander, (Brendan’s children from Agnes’s first marriage) – in Catherine’s case as far as South Africa. There is a brief year’s respite helped a little by AA meetings but once precipitated off the wagon by her well-meaning but misguided new boyfriend Eugene, Agnes is doomed. As if that wasn’t enough to cope with Shuggie also has his fondness for dolls and figurines, lack of ability at football and even to walk like ‘normal’ boys to cope with.

There was one further odd note; Lizzie’s revelation beside Wullie’s death bed of an incident that had occurred on Wullie’s return from the Second World War. It seemed like an interpolation from a different book entirely. As to this one, it really ought to be titled Agnes Bain. Though it does require Shuggie to tell it, it is her story rather than his.

It’s very good though, bound to be in my books of the year.

Pedant’s corner:- “ignorant to the fact” (ignorant of the fact,) snuck (sneaked,) stour (several times; usually spelled ‘stoor’,) doubt (the usual spelling of this word for a cigarette end is ‘dout’. Stuart uses ‘doubt’ throughout,) sat (many times; sitting, or, seated,) “was stood” (was standing,) aluminum (aluminium, please,) trouseless (trouserless,) “four months prior” (four months previously,) “off of” (off; no ‘of’,) gotten (is an old Scottish usage but has nearly always now been replaced by ‘got’.) “‘Will you come visit us when we live in Africa?’” (the British usage is, ‘Will you come and visit us’; or ‘come to visit us’,) “‘he’s not showed up’” (shown up,) math (maths,) one character says ‘whant’, (this may have been an attempt to render the pronunciation of ‘want’ as ‘wahnt’. Scots would pronounce ‘wh’ as hw however, so ‘whant’ would be hwant, not ‘wahnt’,) “‘carrying on lit that’” (‘carrying on lik that’,) “the Kelvingrove Hall” (there is no such place. There is a Kelvin Hall, an erstwhile entertainment venue and latterly home to the Glasgow Museum of Transport before it moved to a purpose-built site, but this wasn’t it. By its description here the “grand building” concerned is the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, commonly referred to simply as Kelvingrove,) bisim (usually spelled besom,) “the rotary” (this was on a telephone; and usually called the dial,) “‘It was nice of you to come visit with us’” (just ‘visit us’; no ‘with’,) “plated neatly” (plaited; spelled correctly three lines above,) “‘I’d could be sure’” (I could be sure,) anyhows (x 3; I’ve never heard anyone from the West of Scotland put an ‘s’ on the end of ‘anyhow’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the clumsy, thick gusset of her black stockings, (stockings do not have a gusset. Here, and a few times later, Stuart uses ‘stockings’ when he means ‘tights’,) foustie (usually spelled foosty,) plimsolls (the West of Scotland term for these is ‘sandshoes’,) “When they banned the cane a few years before” (in Scotland the cane was not used for corporal punishment. What was used instead was the tawse, commonly called ‘the belt’,) “lit what” (lik what,) “closer in age with to Leek” (no ‘with’ needed,) “he gave her small round of applause” (a small round,) “Chernobyl and the nuclear explosion that had happened there” (it wasn’t a nuclear explosion. It was a normal, chemical explosion which blew the lid off the reactor and so released radiation.) “New Year’s in Scotland” ([x 2] is actually New Year; with no apostrophe ‘s’.) “Each of the buildings were identical” (Each of the buildings was identical,) “none of the drunks were his” (none …. was his,) zipper (zip,) “her held tilted back” (her head,) finger-er-ed (this was over a line break; finger-ed,) “corporation bus” (Corporation bus.)

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