Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart, was the recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it is indeed a stunning debut. It's a devastating story of addiction and love, with characters and stories that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.
Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who is bullied for being prissy and effeminate, and his mother, who is an alcoholic. It's about what extreme addiction, and the poverty that comes with it, does to a family. Above all, it's about the fierce, protective love of a child for their parent, a child trying to keep his own world afloat, to somehow love but still survive.
While I was devouring this book -- I couldn't put it down -- I kept thinking: this is Roddy Doyle meets Irvine Welsh. I mean that in the best possible way.
Stuart shares Doyle's razor-sharp understanding of human motivation, and his unerring eye for the details that bring the reader right inside the characters. His writing is cinematic and richly detailed, but never bogged down. The language, the pacing, and the tone all remind me of Roddy Doyle, who (as longtime wmtc readers may remember) is one of my very favourite authors.
But Doyle has never been this dark. An honest, unflinching look at addiction in the depths of the Glasgow underclass must owe a debt to Irvine Welsh. Welsh brought you fully and utterly into the world of the heroin addict, and Stuart does the same for the world of an advanced alcoholic.
I'm grateful that Stuart didn't adopt Welsh's vernacular style. I understand why Welsh and his cohorts wrote in their own dialect, but it made for difficult reading. Stuart uses some Glaswegian working-class slang without explanation, but it's easy enough to pick up the meaning through context.
In 2022, Stuart published Young Mungo, which follows a gay teen coming of age on the tough streets of Glasgow. I will definitely read it.
When Shuggie Bain was published, Stuart gave many interviews in which he disavowed the autobiographical nature of these novels. Later on, he embraced the truth that they are largely based on his own young life. I'm grateful he survived to tell the story. This interview in The Guardian is particularly good.