Possibly the fact that a book has won a Booker Prize (or indeed any literary award) should serve as an immediate caveat that it is not for the weak. Shuggie Bain is no exception. It is appallingly dark and utterly hopeless. The only thing that enabled me to persevere to the end is that Douglas Stuart, without any doubt, writes from his own childhood experience. He has somehow escaped the physical and geographic horror of his youth and so he deserves to have his book read by those more fortunate and he has earned his Booker Prize (which is surely an award for enduring a nightmare rather than for writing a masterpiece?)
I did not find this novel to be “a thing of rare and lasting beauty” (as pronounced by the Observer). I found it to be an absolute ordeal, written mainly in the vernacular of uneducated Scottish drunks. Shuggie’s beautiful, smart, alcoholic mother spends the entire 400+ pages sinking deeper and deeper into despair as she drinks more heavily, consorts with increasingly vile and abusive menfolk and finds progressively more morbid ways to attempt to end her life. Somehow her children survive childhood and grow up in chaos, malnutrition and neglect before disappearing (in relief) as soon as they possibly can. Her friends desert her (or she does them) and she moves from her parents’ toxic home to the squalor of a dead mining town and finally to an inner-city slum where she succumbs at last to the horror of her entire adult life. I felt a profound relief when she finally died uneventfully of her addiction. Shuggie is her youngest child and is a sweet and different soul who remains dependent on her and devoted to her to the bitter end of the novel in a state of disturbing codependency. To add to his suffering, he is quickly recognized by his tough and streetwise peers to be a “poof” and is mercilessly mocked and abused. His life is a misery and a torment. He is afraid to leave his home in the morning and terrified of what he will find when he returns. He fails to encounter even one adult in his entire childhood who does not take advantage of him or deepen his misery in some way. From the taxi driver who puts his hands down Shuggie’s pants to the bored and brutal teachers and finally to his apparently blameless grandfather who coldly “disappears” his wife’s wartime baby.
Everything about this novel is dark and brutal, violent and hopeless, gloomy and devastating, vulgar and coarse, cruel and deeply discouraging. It demonstrates humanity at its very worst and its only ray of light lies is the fact that the author somehow survived and defied the horror of his desperate origins. 2021 may not be the year to read this novel – unless one uses it to supply some much-needed perspective.