Douglas Stuart weaves together the fragile threads of human identity whilst grappling with complex issues of poverty, gender, and sexuality; with such a delicate nuance, it is hard for the reader to believe Shuggie Bain is his debut novel. Stuart takes the reader on an intimate tour of the lives of the Bain family, alternating his narrative primarily between a mother, Agnes Bain, and her son Shuggie. The author unpicks the complicated effects of alcohol use and misuse, the impacts of infidelity, and the daily struggle of poverty in a Thatcherite Scotland. Stuart hones in on how each family member grapples with their trauma and how it impacts their identity and character. He also unpicks the nature of shared trauma within a family, particularly trauma’s far-spreading, long-lasting effects, and how it can also bond a family to each other.
The novel opens with Shuggie Bain, he is a young boy and alone, and the reader is exposed to the challenges this isolation and this poverty brings about for Shuggie. The scene is set, but unanswered questions about how this came to be his circumstances remain, and the reader finds themselves drawn in, stuck, in need to uncover why his life is the way it is. This feeling of being stuck, needing to read the novel, almost parallels the realities of life and being stuck where he is for Shuggie Bain, and Douglas Stuart has masterfully centred the reader in the shoes of his character. This centring of the reader and placing them in the character’s shoes continues throughout the novel.
Rather than outline what the Bain family experiences, Stuart offers what feels like a fresh take on the age-old skill of sensory writing. Using vivid description and emotive language, the reader feels situated in the heart of the story. Whether describing the iridescent lights of Blackpool illuminating the night, or the way a carpet feels, you find yourself for a moment as if you were almost there. The descriptive language seems to work two-fold for Stuart. Firstly, it creates a more vivid narrative for the reader. Secondly, as it appeals to your senses, it evokes an emotive response as you read, allowing the reader to care for, perhaps love, different characters despite their flaws.
This humanistic grounding in the novel is possibly best encapsulated in the author’s opening dedication to his mother. The story is not just about the trauma and struggle, but the veritable power of love and the human spirit to survive. Through the tone of his writing, the reader understands that Stuart has taken a humanistic approach to telling Agnes Bain’s story. While the reader understands the damage her behaviour and alcoholism cause, they can also see the tenderness of her love for Shuggie. This juxtaposition often means the readers' emotions balance finely between sympathy for Agnes and disappointment in her choices.
One aspect of the novel that I found particularly interesting was that the characters’ experiences such as abuse, rape and molestation, were told with a child-like perception. For example, the harsh realities of abuse were revealed, by describing the situations, narrating what happened and to whom, without ever outlining or identifying the behaviour outright. Talking about the conditions without labelling reflected what childhood experiences of abuse may feel like, even if a child does not have the words or ability to articulate the experience. The openness of the characters’ experiences shared as truth made the novel hard to read, but it also added authenticity. It felt truthful that a character who had a sparing education, and having known no different kind of life, would not necessarily retell abuse as an unprecedented experience but merely a fact of life.
The use of the third person throughout the novel was a surprising decision of Douglas Stuart. Usually, the third person narrative would create a level of detachment for a reader. In some parts of the prose, there is competition between Stuart’s natural loquaciousness and the authenticity of the character’s voice. I found, particularly with Shuggie and earlier parts of the novel, the characterisation of an almost grandiose way of speaking did not seem in keeping with other elements of the story. Overall, though, the third-person narrative did not remove any attachment I had for the characters, and I still found myself willing for a happy ending.
Douglas Stuart offers a fresh take on fiction inspired by reality; it is a novel that was never originally intended to be published1. It feels as though Douglas Stuart’s life experience can be seen throughout the story, especially with the care he takes to tell his story. Through reading the book, it also becomes clear that Shuggie Bain serves not as a criticism or a solution to poverty and abuse. Instead, it is a fictional yet almost autobiographical retelling of someone’s life. In writing this way, Stuart challenges individual readers' beliefs of both what they know of difficult life experiences and how much judgment we should afford others, especially when the shared outward persona is very different from what goes on beneath the surface.
As a student social worker, I would recommend this book to all others learning or working within the profession. Whilst not an easy read, particularly the more harrowing details of abuse, it does challenge the readers' perception of what we know as love and caring and enables us to exact sympathy and empathy at different points – both critical skills for social workers. However, this novel is not just for those studying social work, and whilst focusing on issues that social workers face every day, its reach is more significant than that. It focuses on some of the darker sides of the human condition and nature, but also on common themes such as family, love, and pride, which we all can relate to, making it a must-read for everyone
Self, J (2020) Douglas Stuart on writing Shuggie Bain: ‘it was a difficult process’. [Online] (Accessed 17 October 2021).