When Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, I had heard of neither the book, nor the author. Having just completed The Shadow King, which was also shortlisted, I thought that the winner must have been an outstanding candidate to top Maaza Mengiste’s book. Now having finished the ultimate winner, I feel a little disappointed. It’s not that Shuggie Bain is not a good book: it is. It’s well written and will stick in your mind for some time after reading it. But it’s a little too much Angela’s Ashes for me (again- well-written and memorable but not Booker Prize material, not that it was eligible at the time), and I wonder if Stuart will be able to move beyond books steeped in his own experience. Time will tell, I suppose.
The book is a thinly disguised autobiography. Shuggie Bain is the youngest of three children, always fastidious and conscious of appearance. The woman whose appearance meant most to him was his mother, Agnes, whose attention to her dress, hair and makeup masked increasingly futile attempts to disguise her alcoholism. As the youngest and rather effeminate child, there was an intimacy between Shuggie and his mother as they slept and bathed together, and chose outfits together. Increasingly Shuggie became familiar (in a non-sexual way) with her body as he undressed her and put her to bed in yet another drunken stupor.
The book is set in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies. It is circular in its narrative, starting and finishing in a bedsit on the South Side (of Glasgow) in 1992, then backtracking to Sighthill 1981 where Shuggie is living in his maternal grandmother’s house with his parents Big Shug and Agnes. In 1982 Big Shug moves his wife, daughter Catherine and two sons Leek and Shuggie to Pithead, a former mining village that has been closed under Thatcher’s economic rationalism. He then promptly leaves the family. By 1989 Shuggie and his mother move to the East End, his older siblings having escaped the continuous degradation and betrayal caused by their mother’s drinking. By 1992, in the final section of the book, Agnes is no longer Shuggie’s burden.
And burden she is. She drinks through the Monday and Tuesday social security money as soon as she receives it. She breaks into the various meters attached to the utilities in a user-pays society to scrounge change. She goes out with men- too many men- and uses her body to get the money to drink. There is too much vomit and too many sprawled bodies. That one bright year when she finally breaks free of her addiction is even more tragic for how it ends. She is in no place or state to respond to her children’s needs. Near the end, when she has spent all the money and without a single bite of food in the house, she deflects Shuggie’s complaints of hunger by scoffing that at least he gets a free lunch at school. Not so. Shuggie is being bullied, and his lunch passes are extorted from him.
For Shuggie has his own needs and his own problems. Identified by everyone- his own family, neighbours, other students – as ‘not right’, he is struggling with his own sexuality. He would have stood out as a figure of fun. As a five-year-old, just moved into the Pithead house, he interrupts his mother as she is meeting the neighbours- a toxic scrabble of vicious women who congregate around the fence gossiping and bitching- to express his dissatisfaction with their new house.
The front door opened again, and Shuggie came out on to the top step. Without addressing the women he turned to his mother and put his hands on his hips; he trust a foot forward and said as clear as Agnes had ever heard him speak, “We need to talk. I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It’s simply unpossible.” (p.101)p.101
Despite his older brother Leek’s attempts to get him to walk in a more masculine way by ‘not being so swishy’ and making ‘room for your cock’ (p.152), Shuggie is a target and he suffers.
‘Social services’ is remarkably absent in this book. This is no surveillance state: instead it is a state of neglect. Would Shuggie have been better off, removed from his mother? No, I don’t think so. She is the centre of his world – too much- but his sense of obligation and persistence in keeping on hoping, keeping her sober, catching her beauty, lies at the core of his existence. Other people just drop away- his own siblings, his grandparents, his own father, her partner – none of them can withstand the selfishness and energy-draining repetition of Agnes’ drunkenness. An illness, yes, but one for which it is hard to have sympathy.
Why do I feel short-changed with this book as a Booker Prize winner? It is a long book at 430 pages, and it feels every bit of it without actually moving far (which is of course, a function of the stuck-ness of Agnes and her family). It tells a narrative well, its use of dialogue is good, the emotional tenor of Shuggie’s bond with his mother is nuanced, and Stuart imagines himself sensitively into Agnes’ befuddled mind. It is all of these things, but for me it didn’t have the literary heft that I would want a Booker Prize winner to have. It is, at heart, a misery memoir, self-contained within its own world. A worthy short-list contender, but for me not ‘winner’ material.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library