"...stories birling ..."
It’s fitting that I read Shuggie Bain like an addict. The world went on around me as I crouched down and supped on words, allowing myself to be slightly less fastidious about the care of the children. At around the three-quarters mark, the novel was complete in my mind. I was satiated, but grateful for the last quarter to allow me time to recover and digest.
Author Douglas Stuart has a keen eye for humanity and he has created one of the most memorable characters ever to grace the pages of a book — not Shuggie Bain, the boy whose life-story had me ready to volunteer at the local food bank and write to my local MP about giving free school meals to all children — but his mother, Agnes Bain, a complex, tortured soul reliant on drink. I picture her now in my mind walking down a bleak highway in her fur coat and high heels, head held high, her remaining inner and outer beauty a metaphor for what might have been. I doubt I will ever create a character as compelling as Agnes Bain.
My childhood differed from Shuggie Bain’s, but much of the novel still resonated with me. Like Shuggie Bain, I was born in the mid-1970s when parts of Northern Ireland were as grim as parts of Glasgow, but I’ve never really taken the time to be angry about the social deprivation I saw in school, on the brae on the way home or at the wee park where the bonfire was lit each summer. We had good parks nearby, we could walk to the town centre, we had the seaside on our doorstep, we ran the streets. Yes, we lived in fear that our daddies might be shot or bombed, but there was always hot water and holidays to Butlins. When reading Shuggie Bain, I found myself experiencing real anger about Glasgow’s past, the dismantling of industry, the too-quick economic decline — the way people didn’t matter. Was Belfast dismantled more slowly or did we not notice because of the bombs?
One unexpected aspect of Shuggie Bain is the sectarianism. We forget in Northern Ireland that our troubles were played out on the streets of Glasgow through bare fist fights, raucous football matches and general fear. In fact, the sectarianism is more casual in Shuggie Bain than in any book I’ve read set in Northern Ireland. When I try to say the words “Protestant” or “Catholic” in public, they come out all fractured and swallowed up, and this is so when I write. I exhausted my ability to write the words in my first two novels, so that by the time it came to Dusty Bluebells, I found it hard to type a capital P or C. This is on account of a life-time of avoidance in order not to offend anyone. In Shuggie Bain, the truth is out, although there are no conclusions from the author: if Protestantism holds some advantage, it’s a subtle matter when poverty is so comprehensive.
Shuggie Bain came to my attention when author Ian Andrew remarked on the linguistic similarities between Dusty Bluebells and Shuggie Bain. Both books are written in English with Scots dialogue — Shuggie Bain in the Scots dialogue of Glasgow, and Dusty Bluebells in the Scots dialogue of east Antrim. On paper and without the oral accent, the dialects look almost the same, and I was surprised by this because I lived in Glasgow in 1995-1996 and had terrible trouble understanding my customers in Ghillie Brown’s Bar in Central Station
Shuggie Bain, however, is no more about the Scots language than Dusty Bluebells: it is a work of realism, as digestible as lager to the alcoholic. There are no fancy tricks or pretensions, there are sometimes problems with voice and imagery can be inconsistent, but Douglas Stuart, like John McNeilli in his 1930s novel, Wigtown Ploughman, takes us to the land and has us drink it. We see the suffering shades of a slag heep in a pit town, walk across concrete and coal and exhale the glimmers of hope and humour. It’s a good old-fashioned novel and a great work of art.
Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize is published by Picador and is the first published novel for Glasgow-born fashion designer Douglas Stuart.
Angeline King, writer in Residence of Ulster University, is the author of Snugville Street and A Belfast Tale. Start reading Dusty Bluebells here.
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