My father was an alcoholic, albeit a functioning one. He would come home from work on a Friday and drink a bottle of whisky. He’d drink another two bottles on Saturday and a half-bottle on Sunday. He generally wouldn’t go to bed no matter how much my mother pleaded or cajoled, preferring to stay up and drink himself into a stupor in his armchair, mechanically reaching for his glass as soon as he woke. He generally didn’t eat much, if at all; if he was persuaded to the table, he generally couldn’t stay conscious long enough to successfully move the food from the plate into his mouth. On Sunday after the final dreg was finished he’d make himself a pint of orange squash and go to bed, emerging mid-evening looking slightly subdued for more squash and some supper. On Monday he’d rise early for work and not touch a drop all week until he came home on Friday and the cycle began again. Monday to Thursday he was the best father; Friday to Sunday I wanted him dead.
It was a confusing, dysfunctional relationship that became worse when he retired. It became impossible to predict when his binges would start. Each time I turned my key in the lock I could never be sure what I’d find on the other side of the door. Nor was there any way of knowing when he’d stop. Freed from the stricture of the working week, he’d go on benders lasting a week or more.
There were periods, though, when he didn’t drink at all for months on end. Whenever dry weeks became dry months and then dry quarter-years, the cruel hope sprang up that this time it would be different, this time he would stay sober. It never was; he never did. There was always a day when my key turned in the lock and I opened the door on a glassy-eyed, swaying creature and a room reeking of whisky.
Perhaps that’s why one scene in Shuggie Bain remained with me long after I’d finished reading. Shuggie’s alcoholic mother, Agnes Bain, stays sober for a year only to fall off the wagon spectacularly when her new boyfriend Eugene persuades her to have a drink and then buys her another, and another, and another… “She didn’t know why her son would be so angry, why he was screaming down at her. All she understood was, he was hitting Eugene square in his thick neck with his fists. All she remembered was that another bedroom door opened, and there in the doorway was the little boy with the worried face of his own granny. His face was wet with disappointment.”
Unlike my father, Agnes is definitely not functioning. Her husband, Big Shug, leaves because of her drinking, though only after he’s moved her and the children out of her parent’s flat and “dropped” them in a “shitehole” out-of-town housing scheme. Pithead was built to house mining families – but this is 1982, the mine has closed. (“Someone had painted Fuck the Tories on the plywood barrier”.)
Agnes’ three children, Catherine, Leek and Shuggie, have to fend for themselves while also taking care of Agnes. As they get older, Agnes’ drinking drives away first Catherine, then Leek, until Shuggie is left to look after his mother alone.
Shuggie has no support network, neither family nor friends. His siblings have moved away, Big Shug has a new family; the other children in Pithead torment him for being a “wee poof.” “Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was.”
There’s a lot to get your teeth into, including working-class poverty and emerging sexual awareness, but the absolute centre of the novel is the damaging love-hate relationship of a child and an alcoholic parent.
Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize, an achievement made all the more remarkable when you realise this is Stuart’s first novel.
Rating: *** Highly recommended.