Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I think Shuggie Bain is likely on everybody’s “to-be-read” list after winning the 2020 Booker Prize award. It’s a tale that spans over a decade and tells the story of deep sorrow and struggle between a boy and his mother.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart book review
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Shuggie Bain is the name of the son of Agnes Bain whose life has thrown constant pain and abandonment at her. She’s an alcoholic and the story tells the tale of Shuggie’s and her own experiences over the space of just over a decade. It’s a sad one. Do not read this book if you’re looking for a light summer read.

Plot – 5/5

As mentioned above, Shuggie Bain mostly follows the lives of Agnes and Shuggie Bain. Agnes is left early on by “Big Shug”, the man she’s in love with and Shuggie and Leek’s father, which sends her into an alcoholic down the spiral. This sees hers and Shuggie’s lives change forever. The next three hundred pages take us through different stages of alcoholism including the lowest lows and the hopeful highs. However, inevitably it’s a story that will make you realise just how difficult addiction to alcohol is.

The story itself takes place over many years, progressing us through Shuggie and his mother’s lives as they take on new experiences and the world changes around them. Shuggie soon realises he is gay, and in the 1980s, this is not accepted by his peers at all. With this and his mother’s addiction, he struggles to get through his late childhood and teen years. He is there to support his mother through her highs and lows, showing a true heroic spirit.

Characters – 5/5

Shuggie is an absolute saint. He grows up in an environment where not only does he only know loss and pain but he has to take all of this in and find his own path with very little guidance from his parents or his peers. He develops unique habits and coping mechanisms that see him further ridiculed. He’s someone who clearly loves his mother dearly and only wants the absolute best for her. He wants her to be happy and will do absolutely anything for this.

Agnes herself is a fascinating character. Her addiction to alcohol may make you think you’ll take a disliking to her and there are certainly moments where you do, however, there’s a woman under there who has been severely hurt her whole life and who has got herself trapped into this disease that changes her. She isn’t herself when she’s drunk and unfortunately, she’s drunk for the majority of the time. When she sobers up, she’s a good mother and a kind person. But it never lasts long.

The supporting characters that feature such as Shuggie’s older brother Leek and some of the friends that Agnes makes along the way are all fantastically well written. They’re flawed and their own people and this makes you respect their decisions. 

Shuggie Bain summary – 5/5

You’ll notice I’ve given both “characters” and “plot” five out of five ratings. This book is really that good. It took me a while to get into at first I wasn’t sure what I was reading. However, after a couple of hundred pages, I realised this was one of those books that’s not about the small individual stories but about the journey as a whole. It’s a fantastically brutal and honest telling of the long-term effects of alcoholism. I liked that it wasn’t set in an easy setting, I liked that the author wasn’t safe and fluffy with the addiction of alcohol and I loved the characters, flaws and all.

I’d recommend Shuggie Bain for anybody who is looking for something to tug on their heartstrings; someone who has decided they need to finish off that box of Kleenex or someone who isn’t in the mood to smile. No, but in all seriousness, I’d definitely recommend picking up Shuggie Bain. It’s brutally, truthfully and wonderfully written with real, flawed but loveable characters.


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