Oh man – this is a tough but brilliant read. Shuggie’s childhood is so bleak that there were times when I had to have a breather from the novel, mired as it is in deep-set poverty and cruelty. But I became so involved in the endless cycle of unhappiness and glimmers of hope that I had to keep going. Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, is an alcoholic, an illness fuelled by unhappiness and abuse. In turn, her children witness her degradation and her slow decline. The heart-breaking thing is Shuggie’s love for his mother, his sense that he can make her better if he stays to look after her.
Shuggie himself doesn’t fit in, he’s not like the other boys, and his poverty makes him even more of a target. He’s eloquent and well mannered, and desperate to see his mother well. The world around him is harsh and grey, a sense of compounded by the fact that his father, Shug Bains, moves the family out to the Pithead, a housing estate adjacent to one of the last mines in the Glasgow area. There is little joy in this novel, but Shuggie is a character to remember. His loyalty to Agnes is brilliantly done, as is his relationship with his older brother, Leek. Leek’s life has been badly affected by his mother’s illness – he gains a place at the Art School but is unable to take it up – and he remains the one person who is there for Shuggie when things become desperate.
Agnes is a classic tragic figure, a woman abused and abandoned by successive men as they break her for their own sense of control. I loved her refusal to give up, to be silenced, but there’s very little sense that things are going to end well for this woman. Stuart lays bare the realities of generational poverty and the impact alcoholism has on families. This is, as I say, a tough read, but one which will stay with me. It’s place on the Booker longlist is well-deserved, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make it onto the shortlist.