Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain Study Guide

Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain is a coming-of-age novel about a dysfunctional family living in Thatcher-era Glasgow, Scotland. The book won the 2020 Man Booker Prize.

Based on Stuart's own childhood, the novel centers on Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, the son of an alcoholic mother and a womanizing taxi driver who abandons the family. Although Shuggie is the protagonist, the third-person narration shifts between the points of view of Shuggie, his father, mother, sister, and brother. The novel begins with a teenaged Shuggie living in Glasgow in 1992, when he lives in a rooming house and works at a grocery store. The narrative moves back to 1981, when Shuggie lives with his mother Agnes, his father Big Shug, his sister Catherine, and his brother Leek. They all live in Agnes's parents' apartment. Agnes's drinking and self-destructive behavior culminate in her setting fire to her bedroom. Big Shug then arranges for Agnes, Shuggie, and Leek to live in a council house in a coal mining town while he goes to live with his mistress. Agnes struggles to pay the bills while battling a worsening drinking habit. Shuggie meanwhile faces homophobic prejudice for his effeminacy and Leek grows tired of caring for Shuggie and Agnes. Agnes achieves sobriety after joining Alcoholics Anonymous and gets a job at a petrol station. She begins dating Eugene, a cab driver, but he is uncomfortable with Agnes's identity as an alcoholic. He invites her to take a drink to prove she doesn't have a problem, and she relapses with intensity. Tension between Agnes and Leek erupts when he moves away and tells Shuggie she won't change. Agnes continues to drink and Shuggie continues to stick by her while they are living in the East End of Glasgow in 1989. Shuggie comes to terms with his sexual orientation while becoming friends with Leanne, a fellow child of an alcoholic. Agnes eventually dies by choking on her own vomit; Shuggie considers intervening, but decides not to. The novel ends in 1992 with Shuggie and Leanne bringing food and clothes to Leanne's homeless alcoholic mother.

Exploring themes of abandonment, alcoholism, codependency, recovery, homophobia, and poverty, Shuggie Bain depicts a working-class family grappling with societal problems exacerbated by Margaret Thatcher's pro-privatization, anti-labor union policies. The debut novel made it on multiple literary prize lists and won the 2020 Booker Prize, with the judges stating, "The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalized, 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."