Mark Reid reviews Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the story of a boy and his alcoholic mother.
Anyone who has been addicted to alcohol is taken straight back to its horrors here. And all those who have toiled to help the drinking alcoholic will identify with Shuggie Bain’s hopes and burdens. The novel centres on Shuggie and his mum. From an early age he looks after her, very often instead of going to school. In the mornings, for her hangovers and withdrawals, Shuggie arranges three tea mugs: ‘tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, milk to line her sour stomach, a mixture of the flat leftovers frothed together with a fork’. The lager pushes her boak back down and begins to stop her shakes.
When he does make it to school, Shuggie is bullied because he is different. He is attracted to boys and plays with shiny ornaments and a doll but under this peer pressure he wants nothing more than to like things boys like, including football – but it’s a token effort. Shuggie is too young to leave his mum – he has no one else, and he remains firm in the belief that she will recover. ‘I would do anything for you,’ he tells her, and blames himself. The bleak limited patterns of her life confine and define his, yet he is also consoled by the routines. As Shuggie sees it, her trouble tends to start when she goes out and meets the wrong people: ‘it would be better if they were stuck inside alone, where he could keep her safe forever.’
Shuggie’s mum, Agnes, sometimes goes through the motions of being a good mother. In the local grocery, she chooses the makings of a good meal. Then, pretending it was an afterthought, she asks for 12 cans of Special Brew. Of course, she doesn’t have enough money for all of it and just buys her essentials, leaving all the food in the store.
Her main resentment is men and how she thinks they have ruined her life. Though Agnes is promiscuous – with those who ‘take her comforts in exchange for a bag of carry-out’ – she is abused by many men, especially Shuggie’s step-dad. He is violent, lives with another woman and comes and goes as he likes. Agnes describes him as ‘a short fat balding pig who fancies himself as a Casanova’. Her previous husband was a good man who didn’t go to the pub and gave his wages to her, but she was never able to respect this and was restless. After Agnes left him, he had still sent money every Thursday and taken Shuggie and the other children every second Saturday. Agnes found his limit when she gave her children their step-dad’s name: Bain. Their real dad never saw them after that.
When she is abstinent, including a year in Alcoholics Anonymous, Agnes becomes attentive and generous, and impresses on people that she now understands she cannot drink normally. Her latest partner, Eugene, chooses not to try to accept this, as he feels ill at ease socially with someone who doesn’t drink. He goads her into a glass of wine. She objects. She is scared to drink, but too proud to admit it, so when he keeps prodding, saying she is a changed woman, she gives in. Soon she orders vodka, ‘and then she ordered another and then another’. Her recovery is over.
The novel is set in the de-industrialised Glasgow of the early 1980s when the city ‘was losing its purpose’, and in part this is offered as an explanation for hopelessness and alcoholism. But it is really an account of the state of mind of those who are loyal to those who are addicted – the external chaos and the internal confusion. This is movingly summed up when Shuggie, watching his mum drinking herself to death, asks: ‘Why can’t I be enough?’