Just finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. When I first started reading this book, I knew it was going to be hard going. I knew it was about a sensitive young boy growing up in poverty in Thatcherite Glasgow so I could in some way picture the poignant scenes this book could conjure up. But, I really had no idea just how deep Stuart would dig this well of despair.
Not to instigate a trauma race but I really mean it when I say that Shuggie Bain makes A Little Life read like a frolic through a flowery meadow. There were episodes in this book where I had to take breaks from reading because the melancholy was just too deep; the story far too captivating to maintain any form of detachment. I even started suspecting Stuart was taking it too far but when I read about the author’s upbringing and saw that his childhood mirrored that of his protagonist, I uncovered a new and crucial layer to the story.
In some ways, this book isn’t about little Shuggie at all. It’s a book about his mother Agnes, a damaged woman whose battle with alcoholism is narrated to us through Shuggie’s eyes. She’s a fascinating character and despite her many flaws, just like Shuggie, we can’t help but love her.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t think Stuart is a brilliant writer and the next literary superstar. The writing could at times be a bit pedestrian, even a little childish - though this perhaps allows us to appreciate Shuggie’s naïve perspective all the more. For a Booker winner, the prose here isn’t very Booker-y. And yet, I’d say it may be the most deserving winner in recent times. This is a story that needs to be heard, and Stuart is so deserving of the platform this prize affords him. The heartbreak we readers feel is a necessary price to pay for a work so heartfelt and profound.