Contrary to its title, this story predominantly centres around Agnes Bain, a glamorous and complex Glaswegian housewife struggling with alcohol addiction. Stuck raising her three children, Shuggie being the youngest, in a rundown housing settlement amongst a closed down mining town where Agnes was abandoned by her second husband. This is the tender love story of a mother and son. Prepare to have your heart strings tugged on in this sad, funny, completely gripping and utterly moving exploration of how far we will go for the ones we love.
This book is fantastically written to emphasise the Glaswegian dialect, so you best be ready to try out your best Scottish accent. All I can say is that it sounded great in my head. Set in Thatcher era UK, a time when unemployment was rife, and a housewife was just that. We first meet Shuggie in 1992, at the age of 15, living in a bedsit in Glasgow by himself, working four days a week and going to school when he can. We then rewind through the years 1981-1989 to come to find out just how Shuggie came to be on his own at the age of 15.
It would seem this story has at times been unfairly earmarked as simply depressing. While it covers uncomfortable topics such as addiction, poverty, sexual abuse and domestic violence, which I am by no means dismissing as there are times of uncomfortable reading within the novels pages, it is easily uplifted by the utterly fabulous characters of Agnes and Shuggie. Ridiculed and outcast from within their rough community of Pithead for being too different. Shuggie is too queer, and Agnes is too beautiful and glamorous. These are the very same traits that make them intriguing for us as the reader. Throughout the novel they band together as best they can to try weather the crappy hand life has dealt them, often shown in hilarious scenes that seem written for cinematic greatness (cue the hospital scene for anyone who has read the novel). It is hard to ask the question that plagued my mind throughout the novel without feeling like it has the potential to glamourise addiction, and so I ask it in a manner open to all opinions: what is it that we love so much about a hot mess of a female character?
We also couldn’t write this review without taking a moment to appreciate Leek, Shuggies older brother, and Agnes’s son from her first marriage. Leek is the quiet constant that holds the house together. He moves silently in the background watching over Agnes and Shuggie. He never asks for thanks and is often looking out for them at the expense of his own ambition. His quiet and caring nature means that he will subtly creep up on you as your favourite character.
Much could be written about the settlement of Pithead where a large portion of this story is set, but I implore you to experience it for yourself from within the pages. It a community full of pain, plagued with addiction and unemployment. It is not just Agnes in this story who never gets to explore her full potential, but this whole community gripped in the cycle of poverty and addiction. A perfect example that Stuart has nailed the ability for constant subtle political commentary throughout this novel.
While parts of this book run parallel to Douglas Stuarts own life, the character of Agnes was inspired by his own mother who suffered from alcohol addiction and like Shuggie he grew up poor and queer in Scotland in the 80’s, it is still very much a work of fiction. This book took a mammoth 10 years to write and was rejected 32 times by publishing houses before going on to enormous success and winning the Booker Prize 2020.
I loved this book, to me it was the perfect mix of gripping heartbreak, rich characters, and humour wrapped up in an epic tale of what it means to be different.