In literary terms, this book is a sheer joy: the writing is fluid, evocative, heart-wrenching at times, but most of all it makes you keep reading and keep reading and leaves you slightly bereft when you finally finish it. All of which seems an oddly upbeat way of thinking about a novel the main themes of which are alcoholism, abuse, addiction, grinding poverty and no small amount of bodily violence.
It is all told through the eyes of (Hugh) Shuggie Bain, youngest child of Shug (a mostly absent taxi driver) and Agnes Bain, who is about 8 years old when the novel begins and into his mid-teens by the novel’s close. Stuart has been clear that it is not strictly autobiographical but that there were elements from his childhood that bled into this novel which was 10 years in the writing – a young boy, in a poor and rough end of Glasgow, in the early 1980s, his mother troubled by alcoholism and his growing awareness of his sexuality. Almost a ‘minor’ theme through the book is Shuggie’s repeated feelings of not being like the other boys: not interested in football, their rough-housing play, and when a young girl befriends him he steals two of her Little Pony toys: it is a subtle but insistent thread.
Mum, Agnes is known as a beauty, immaculately turned out – hair styled, expensive coat, always in heels. As such she is the object of scorn, mistrust and often derision from others in the neighbourhood, particularly the women. Whereas most of the men around her are cast as people who will ply her with compliments and alcohol in order to get some sort of sex from her in return. The picture painted is not pretty but it is honest.
Some scenes are jaw-droopingly sad, some inspire anger or indignation, but all are compellingly told – early on, there is a scene of a domestic fire; there is another scene where Shuggie needs rescuing by his older brother Leek – a withdrawn teenager who has had to find his own way of surviving his family situation; there is a toe-curlingly painful attempt at a family reunion without Agnes; and there are countless lesser scenes of run-ins with neighbours, taxi drivers, work colleagues and other kids that while not being ‘grand scenes’ in themselves help with the sense of accretion of oppressive hopelessness faced by Shuggie. In the end all he seems to want is for his mum to be there, be at peace with herself and be loving towards him.
All of this is set against the political and social backdrop of the systematic destruction of working class livelihoods, income, agency, pride and ultimately hope that the Thatcher government carried out in the name of neo-liberalist capitalism or ‘the free market’ as they liked to call it. Glasgow was in the front line of this assault and it copped for some of the big hits such as the decimation of shipbuilding on the Clyde, acts designed primarily to ‘break’ the working class and their perceived power. Exemplified in the novel by the period when the Bains move to one of the cheapest areas to live, a dead-end estate by a recently shut down mine. The descriptions of the lives of the people and their abandonment by the state is worthy of Zola or Dickens, and it is shattering.
Time will tell if the book elevates itself to the status of a classic but it is undoubtedly one of the vital books of the early years of this century because of the brilliance of the story-telling and the way it manages to tell the very personal stories of Agnes and Shuggie alongside, and entwined with, the searing social indictment, without either thread becoming dominant and unbalancing the whole.