Shuggie, Agnes doesn’t deserve you.
And the world probably doesn’t deserve Agnes. She is far too good and bad a soul to walk this earth.
“Shuggie Bain,” Douglas Stuart’s debut effort, popped up on my radar late last year when I saw it on a number of “Best Of” lists and then nominated for the 202 Booker Prize, which it won — at the time, to my dismay — I was rooting for Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life.”
When it won, all I could think was “If it beat out “Real Life,” then is must be amazing.”
I was not disappointed.
If you read my reviews regularly, you could possibly wonder why it took me a bloody month to read it. I assure you, it didn’t. I made the mistake of sticking with another book too long before abandoning it. Three weeks wasted on Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” only to make it about five chapters in. I thought it was sweet that one of my sons found it in a used bookstore and had thought of me and how I might like to expand my reading list to include some classic lit. I tried, I swear I tried. It was just awful.
All the while, my TBR pile was growing, with Shuggie at the top. Once I gave myself permission to just let The Secret Agent go, I picked this up and was not able to put it down until its bittersweet end.
The Bain clan is not a happy one. Pretty much, ever. This is family dysfunction from start to finish. But Stuart takes such great care at creating a cast of characters for which you can empathize, root for, hate with a passion and love fiercely. Whatever you feel, I’m pretty sure none of the Bains want your pity, so try not to go there.
There’s Agnes, the matriarch, with enough demons to carry her and all of Glasgow to the gates of Hell. The daughter of Wullie and Lizzie, she tries first to grow comfortable in a middle-class marriage to a kind if boring man in Brendan, only to let lust and liquor carry her away to Shug Bain, a taxi man on the prowl. With two kids in tow, she starts a new life as a second wife, only to realize that what comes around, goes around. Shug is not the kind of guy to settle down for very long.
Then there’s Shuggie — Agnes’ son with Shug. Left to figure things out for himself from kindergarten on up, Shuggie bears the responsibility of trying to make Agnes happy. With his sister gone and his brother just trying to survive, himself, it’s Shuggie that takes it on the chin, emotionally and physically. He’s got to make the best of it living inland going to school in essentially a miners’ shantytown, all while trying to give his mom and reason to sober up and fly straight.
The load this kid carries. And the way Stuart makes the reader feel it. I mean, I have loathed characters before, but this is one of those times I wished I could physically reach into the pages and punch them in the throat. I’m looking at you, Eugene.
This is not a happy story. But it is a love story. Love of a son for a mother. Love of a mother that keeps trying until she can’t. Love of one’s self enough to know when you just have to get out because you can’t save someone who won’t be saved. Cue Chris Martin, because the movie trailer is going to be one, long “Fix You.”
Straight up great fiction and a thousand times better than Joseph Conrad. Highly recommended. Keep dancing, Shuggie.