BOOK OF THE MONTH
Shuggie Bain: A Novel is Bookclubz' Book of the Month.
Use these discussion questions to guide your next meeting.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.
Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good—her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamourous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits—all the family has to live on—on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her—even her beloved Shuggie.
A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Édouard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.
THE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
Much of Shuggie Bain is set in Pithead, a run-down public housing scheme in 1980s Glasgow. When Agnes Bain finds that her husband, Shug, is moving the family from her parents’ flat in Sighthill, she thinks life will be better in the mining town, but instead she finds that Pithead is just a collection of miners’ houses on the edge of town with no longstanding social, economic, or cultural fabric to hold it together. How does that compare to America’s Rust Belt cities and Appalachian towns? How does it compare to Sighthill?
In Chapter 5, the author paints a grim picture of a girl’s life in Glasgow as Catherine makes her way through a Saturday. Even considering the menacing series of events that lead Catherine running to the pallet fort that day to find Leek, were you surprised by the threat from a gang of young boys to give her a “Glasgow smile” over something as seemingly petty as her allegiance to this or that football team? What does that say about the role sectarianism plays in Glasgow? What kinds of racial or religious parallels can you draw with American culture, both regionally and nationally?
Before moving to Pithead, Shug, Agnes, and her three children are “all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, [giving Agnes] a feeling of failure.” Instead, Agnes dreams of having her own front door, a garden, of “flitting” to a fresh start with Shug despite the overwhelming challenges his cheating and her alcoholism present. When Shug finally moves them, instead of it being a new beginning for them, he unexpectedly dumps the family in a council flat where tough, down-on-their luck women—their husbands emasculated by unemployment—run the community. How does this environment change the way you viewed Lizzie, her card-playing friends, and Agnes’s life in Sighthill?
Shuggie Bain: A Novel
Winner of the Booker Prize
Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction
Finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction
Finalist for the Center for Fiction Debut Novel Prize
“We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalised, impoverished community in a bygone era of British history. It’s a desperately sad, almost-hopeful examination of family and the destructive powers of desire.”
—Booker Prize Judges
“The body—especially the body in pain—blazes on the pages of Shuggie Bain . . . This is the world of Shuggie Bain, a little boy growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s. And this is the world of Agnes Bain, his glamorous, calamitous mother, drinking herself ever so slowly to death. The wonder is how crazily, improbably alive it all is . . . The book would be just about unbearable were it not for the author’s astonishing capacity for love. He’s lovely, Douglas Stuart, fierce and loving and lovely. He shows us lots of monstrous behavior, but not a single monster—only damage. If he has a sharp eye for brokenness, he is even keener on the inextinguishable flicker of love that remains . . . The book leaves us gutted and marveling: Life may be short, but it takes forever.”
—New York Times Book Review
“The tough portraits of Glaswegian working-class life from William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, and Agnes Owens can be felt in Shuggie Bain without either overshadowing or unbalancing the novel . . . Stuart’s capacity for allowing wild contradictions to convincingly coexist is also on display in the individual vignettes that comprise the novel, blending the tragic with the funny, the unsparing with the tender, the compassionate with the excruciating. He can even pull off all of them in a single sentence . . . This overwhelmingly vivid novel is not just an accomplished debut. It also feels like a moving act of filial reverence.”
—James Walton, New York Review of Books
“A debut novel that reads like a masterpiece, Shuggie Bain gives voice to the kind of helpless, hopeless love that children can feel towards broken parents. Shuggie and his mother live in an 1980’s Glasgow subsidized-housing apartment tower, where she drinks and he explores his sexuality under circumstances that allow for scant imagination about a different future for either.”
—Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
This book of the month and discussion guide are shared and sponsored in partnership with Grove Atlantic.