I had heard a lot about Shuggie Bain before I had the opportunity to read it.
I knew that it was going to be harrowing, and about a boy growing up in poverty. I expected to read a modern Angela’s Ashes, set in Scotland rather than Ireland.
While Shuggie Bain was all of that, it was also quite different.
Stewart’s Booker-winning novel is about a boy called Shuggie who was growing up under the influence of his mother’s alcoholism.
The story begins when the family is living with Shuggie’s mother Agnes’s parents in a small council flat.
Agnes prides herself on being immaculately dressed and takes great care to instill in her son the importance of presenting yourself well in public.
However, all her standards sink when she has access to alcohol and she becomes erratic, her presentation deteriorating with her ability to care for Shuggie.
The situation worsens when Agnes’s drinking and cruel husband see her move to a grim tenement in a mining area of the city, where neighbours are all related and keep a close and gleeful eye on eachother’s misdemeanors.
Of those there are many when it comes to Agnes. Shuggie lives a vulnerable, unsupervised life, where he and his brother have the role of caring for their mother. Often there is nothing to eat in the cupboard, and plenty of times the hunger is served alongside violence.
It is a life that swings as wildly as Agnes’s moods. When Agnes is sober, there is a sense of glorious peace – although it is a peace that will inevitably be short-lived. The bleak tenements of Glasgow provide a fitting backdrop to the hopeless situation.
However, despite the desperate undercurrent in the novel, what really shone through is the depth of love Shuggie felt for his mother.
I couldn’t stop myself from feeling angry with Agnes – at times she behaved in ways that were truly awful – yet her son never stopped loving and caring for his mother. He was there when Agnes needed rescuing from one of his unwanted ‘uncles’, or when she lay defenseless at a party.
It revealed the unconditional love between children and their parents, perhaps even more so in situations of despair.
It also provided an insight into a life broken by alcoholism – a topic which Steward understood as his own mother died as a result of addiction.
This story of Shuggie and Agnes will stay with me for a long time.