Shuggie Bain

For C E

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I do not like misery literature and would never wittingly open a book whose bleakness, grimness and oppressiveness would be sure to depress me. Luckily I did not read anything about this book before I opened it. I received it for Christmas from a very dear friend and I trusted her that I would enjoy it. So I didn’t look at the blurb, nor at the very helpful newspaper cutting review that she included in the parcel. All I knew was that it was a Booker prize winner – not necessarily a recommendation – I had just read Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and that was a deep disappointment. I did look at the picture on the jacket and that did indeed look grim – a small boy perched on some sort of cruciform pole with drab social housing in the background – shades of Golgotha perhaps? I should have guessed.


But I didn’t. I started reading and I was hooked from the very beginning. A downward spiral created by shortsighted politics, by greed, and thoughtlessness, leading to bitterness, and ultimately to dehumanisation – Glasgow in Thatcher’s Britain. The tale of a family who suffer from the fallout of the politics of the time. A tale of alcoholism, dependency, abuse, despair, wanton cruelty – the litany of human catastrophe goes on and on.

And yet the book is not depressing at all; it is a tale of dignity over adversity, of hope over irredeemable failure, and above all about love. The love of a boy for his mother and their mutual desire to protect themselves from themselves. He is different – gentle, precise, aesthetic, gay. She is beautiful, proud, ambitious, and deeply disappointed in what life, and the dregs of the humanity she lives among have to offer her.


She wants a nice house, a nice family, nice clothes and to impress. Having been brought up in a dysfunctional family herself – only realising just how dysfunctional and awful her father was at his deathbed – she is unable to cope. The demon drink enters her body and and eventually wins her soul. Her sweet, gentle and confused son does everything he can to save her from herself, her men and her downfall. To no avail.


This novel – though obviously based on truth – is nevertheless a novel. It is beautifully written. It has been compared with Trainspotting, language wise, but I would disagree. Yes, there is some local dialect, but it is perfectly easy to work out. The descriptions of the places and people are cinematic in their scope. In fact the whole book would make a very good film- the opening and closing scenes bring the story full circle and most loose ends are tied up. Yes, some of the characters made me very angry and the situations were extremely frustrating, but I closed the book feeling there is hope after all.

I would recommend it heartily and am interested in your opinion.

3 comments on “Shuggie Bain

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