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An Observer 'Best Debut Novelist of 2020'
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.
Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners' children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.
Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, a blistering debut by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.
'A boy's heartbreaking love for his mother... as intense and excruciating to read as any novel I have ever held in my hand... Set in Glasgow and its declining surrounds from 1981 to 1992, it is the story of Shuggie Bain, a gentle boy, the light of whose life is his mother, Agnes, an increasingly disruptive alcoholic... The heartbreaking futility of this, the boy’s perpetual state of anxiety and dread, is almost unbearable. Year after year, in one humiliating incident after another, the woman’s self-centeredness, desperation and degradation are displayed. It is grindingly, terribly real... The book’s evocative power arises out of the author’s talent for conjuring a place, a time, and the texture of emotion, and out of its language which is strewn with a Glaswegian argot sodden with desolation and misery... This is a hard, grim book, brilliantly written and, in the end, worth the pain which accompanies reading it.' Newsday
“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
“A heartbreaking story about identity, addiction, and abandonment.” TIME
“An instant classic. A novel that takes place during the Thatcher years and, in a way, defines it. A novel that explores the underbelly of Scottish society. A novel that digs through the grit and grime of 1980s Glasgow to reveal a story that is at once touching and gripping. Think D.H. Lawrence. Think James Joyce . . . A literary tour de force.” Washington Independent Review of Books
“Douglas’s sharp narrative perspective moves from character to character, depicting each internally and externally with astute grace, giving a complex understanding of the dynamics of the Bain family . . . Shuggie Bain is a master class in depicting the blinding dedications of love and the endless bounds to which people will go to feel in control, to feel better. It hopefully sets the tone for more beautifully devastating works of fiction to follow from Stuart in the future.” Columbia Journal
“Heartfelt and harrowing . . . [A] visceral, emotionally nuanced portrayal of working class Scottish life and its blazingly intimate exploration of a mother-son relationship.”―Literary Hub
“An atmospheric epic set in 1980s working-class Glasgow, Shuggie Bain, a debut novel by Douglas Stuart, focuses on the relationship between a mother and son as she battles alcoholism and he grapples with his sexuality. It’s a formidable story, lyrically told, about intimacy, family, and love.” Elle (US)
“The way Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting carved a permanent place in our heads and hearts for the junkies of late-1980s Edinburgh, the language, imagery, and story of fashion designer Stuart’s debut novel apotheosizes the life of the Bain family of Glasgow . . . The emotional truth embodied here will crack you open. You will never forget Shuggie Bain. Scene by scene, this book is a masterpiece.”―Kirkus Review (starred review)
“Compulsively readable . . . In exquisite detail, the book describes the devastating dysfunction in Shuggie’s family, centering on his mother’s alcoholism and his father’s infidelities, which are skillfully related from a child’s viewpoint . . . As it beautifully and shockingly illustrates how Shuggie ends up alone, this novel offers a testament to the indomitable human spirit. Very highly recommended.”―Library Journal (starred review)
“Stuart’s harrowing debut follows a family ravaged by addiction in Glasgow during the Thatcher era . . . There are flashes of deep feeling that cut through the darkness . . . Will resonate with readers.” Publishers Weekly
“There’s no way to fake the life experience that forms the bedrock of Douglas Stuart’s wonderful Shuggie Bain. No way to fake the talent either. Shuggie will knock you sideways.”
Richard Russo, author of Chances Are
“Every now and then a novel comes along that feels necessary and inevitable. I’ll never forget Shuggie and Agnes or the incredibly detailed Glasgow they inhabit. This is the rare contemporary novel that reads like an instant classic. I’ll be thinking and talking about Shuggie Bain―and teaching it―for quite some time.” Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased
“A rare and haunting ode to 1980s Glasgow and its struggling communities, Shuggie Bain tells the story of a collapsing family that is lashed together by love alone. Douglas Stuart writes with startling, searing intimacy. I fell hard for these characters; when they have nothing left, they cling maddeningly―irresistibly―to humor, pride and hope.” Chia-Chia Lin, author of The Unpassing
“Shuggie Bain is an intimate and frighteningly acute exploration of a mother-son relationship and a masterful portrait of alcoholism in Scottish working class life, rendered with old-school lyrical realism. Stuart is a writer who genuinely loves his characters and makes them unforgettable and touching even when they're at their worst. He’s also just a beautiful writer; I kept being reminded of Joyce’s Dubliners. I loved this book.” Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens
“A dark shining work. Raw, formidable, bursting with tenderness and frailty. The effect is remarkable, it will make you cry.”―Karl Geary, author of Montpelier Parade