Stuart, Douglas. Shuggie Bain. Pan Macmillan, 2020. RRP $19.99, 400pp, ISBN: 9781529019278.
In 1994 James Kelman became the first Scottish author to win the Booker Prize for his novel, How Late It Was, How Late. The story of a working class man—a drunk—who must learn to navigate the city having woken up to find himself blind divided judges. The backlash to the win was immediate and savage; critic Simon Jenkins writing for The New York Times called it ‘literary vandalism’. Another judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, labelled it a ‘disgrace’.
Fast forward to 2020, and Douglas Stuart has been awarded the Booker Prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, making him only the second Scottish winner in the prize’s 52-year history. Though there are obvious similarities in the two books—the use of Glaswegian dialect, the working class community setting, the very ‘ordinary’ characters—there are notable differences too. Kelman’s book was a focus-demanding mix of third person narrative and stream of consciousness, convention-defying in its style and content. Shuggie Bain would likely be considered more ‘accessible’ if by that we mean it uses standard narrative conventions and is a lot less demanding of a reader.
To see a story about working class experiences awarded such a prestigious literary prize is encouraging. Not only has Stuart opened up this vibrant, funny, heartbreaking world to readers across the globe, he has also paved the way for other writers from working class communities to believe that their stories are valid and should be told. Like Kelman, Stuart shows that the ‘ordinary’ folk of working class British communities are ‘extraordinary’ in the stories that they have to tell.
The titular character, Shuggie Bain, is the youngest of Agnes Bain’s three children after older sister Catherine and brother Leek (Alexander). Shuggie (Hugh Junior) dotes on his mother, but Agnes is an alcoholic, and is held in the thrall of Shug (Hugh Senior), a charismatic and philandering taxi driver who abandons his family time and time again. As Shuggie grows up Agnes sinks deeper and deeper into the drink, but he is the only one of her children who stays by her side and remains devoted to her.
Shuggie is marginalised even within the working class community that his family exists in. He is girlish and prefers to play with dolls and ponies, rather than embracing things that little boys are expected to like.
They walked slowly, swinging between them the Daphne dolly that Shuggie treasured so much.
‘If you cannae make Shug do right by you, at least make him do right by the boy.’ Lizzie narrowed her eyes at her grandson, at his blond dolly. ‘You’ll be needing that nipped in the bud. It’s no right.’ (82)
Shuggie is positioned outside his community in that he is considered a ‘poofter’ and a ‘little fairy’ (213), which opens up the question around what is considered socially acceptable. Questions of belonging permeate this narrative; of being man or woman, part of the community or not, rich or poor, black or white. It is all a question of duality, there are no shades of grey.
Shuggie’s brother Leek is the conduit for Stuart’s exploration of the relationship between working class communities and art and education. Leek is offered a place at Glasgow School of Art,
The paper snapped with quality. His dirty fingers traced the familiar crest at the top of the page […] He knew it said he should start in September. But that was already a September two years ago. He thought back to the time when he had received the letter. He saw Shug leave. He saw Catherine watch the door and his funny little brother, hungry and fearful, while his mother sat with her head in the gas oven.’ (148-149)
Leek’s situation highlights how university, education and a career in any of the Arts are not considered a viable option for anyone from a working class community. Lack of money, family commitments, the obligation to the community to contribute through physical labour, and the view that was widely held in working class communities that writing, painting or drawing aren’t ‘real jobs’, all mean that art and education is not accessible for people like Leek.
Yet, Stuart is clearly an artist. His talent with language and imagery brings to life the vibrancy, humour and richness of working class localities. His descriptions of Glasgow are a gift, and show the true beauty of a city (trust me, I’ve seen it) that many who don’t know it consider dangerous and dirty. Things like, ‘The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost’ (7), or
The Clyde shipbuilding yards were dead now. The wide river was quiet and empty, except for a lonely boatman in a small boat. The reflective strips on his raincoat shone bright as diamonds through the steady smirr. (419)
There is a message here in Stuart’s depiction of this world. Though the industry that once defined these places is long ‘dead’, it is the people, the humans of this community that keep it alive, their very existence enriching the world, shining like expensive ‘diamonds’.
It’s little wonder that Shuggie Bain has received such critical acclaim given that it is an engaging, truthful and very readable story. Though for it to be awarded one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes has another meaning entirely for those who come from the communities depicted in this novel. Stuart, like Kelman before him, has paved the way for working class writers to be heard in their own voices, to be recognised as a vibrant and rich community and to have their experiences finally represented by someone who has lived it.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.