This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.
Douglas Stuart plunges us into the slimy, putrified ghastly poverty of 1980s Glasgow and we are held there, as though under water, not allowed to surface for the entire 430 pages of the novel. It is a world of ill-fitting dentures, dirty underwear, the stink of vomit — yet I found it a compelling read. I am normally irritated when writers incorporate regional accents into their work. But the Glaswegian brogue enlivens every page and I loved it.
How did a 16 year-old boy come to be living alone in a dirty bedsit alongside down and out old men, mainly drunks, working in a supermarket deli and occasionally going to school? The book tells us how this came about.
It is about the relentless and unbreakable cycles of poverty and alcoholism.
Hugh, known as Shuggie, is the child of Agnes Bain’s second marriage. He is thus much younger than her other children. The husband (Shug) dumps his family in a remote and rundown housing estate out at Pithead but never lives there with them. A daughter finds refuge in a marriage that takes her to South Africa and Shuggie’s older brother, Leek, who was offered a place at university two years ago that he has been unable to take up, stays around to try to help young Shuggie ‘act normal’. But to the other kids Shuggie is a ‘wee poofter’ and is mercilessly teased. Agnes took to drink long before Shug dumped them at the Pithead estate. With an alcoholic’s desperation she uses whatever money she can get her hands on to satisfy her need — even after robbing the gas meter and the meter on the TV set, the family often has to go without a hot dinner. And yet, Agnes has a certain pride. When she’s not in a drunken stupor, the house is neat and tidy and she takes great trouble in her appearance, keeping her hair dyed and pantyhose unladdered. Shuggie has a desperate love for her, believing that he must be able to make her better. As a reviewer in The Guardian says, ‘something sadder than heroism is Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother’.
There is brief hope when Agnes joins AA and goes for a year without a drink. But a new boyfriend entices her back one evening at a posh golf club dinner, and after that it takes only a matter of hours for her to be back in an alcoholic stupor. She is ashamed of herself. There is a suicide attempt, but she is rescued by her sons.
The book would be unbearable were it not for the love that is the foundation of Shuggie’s devotion to his mother. Even when she dies (after a night out on the town, brought home by the police), Shuggie makes sure that Agnes looks as she would want. He puts fresh red lipstick on his dead mother’s lips and, for her funeral, improvises some earrings.