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Booker Longlist – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart



Book Four– reviewed by panelists Book Worm, Anita, Nicole and rated by Tracy and Susie

Douglas Stuart was born and raised in Glasgow. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, he moved to New York City, where he began a career in fashion design. Shuggie Bain is his first novel.

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: 

1981. Glasgow. The city is dying. Poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had always expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect – but false – teeth). When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children find themselves trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes increasingly turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. Yet one by one they have to abandon her in order to save themselves.

It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. But Shuggie has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a ‘normal boy’, everyone has decided that Shuggie is ‘no right’. Agnes wants to support and protect her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her, including her beloved Shuggie.

Laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride, Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

BookWorm’s Thoughts: In a word this book is bleak. Yes there is a touch of hope at the end for Shuggie but the rest of the novel is a quagmire of shattered dreams and depressing events.

For a debut author the writing is definitely strong the dialect gives it an authentic feel and I could picture in my mind the life Shuggie and his siblings were living. In fact in some ways on the surface Shuggie reminded me of an old school friend. Indeed I can remember families ordering Christmas on tick from Littlewoods and our TV came from Radio Rentals so in some ways Shuggie’s story is the story of those of us who grew up on council estates in the 1980s.

While I never felt like I got to really know Shuggie, Agnes was a different matter. Agnes came alive on the pages and my heart broke for her when despite everything she does to get herself back on the straight and narrow other folks can’t let her be. That doesn’t mean I liked Agnes it just means I could understand her and how life had conspired to make her seek the answers at the bottom of a bottle.

I know I accused the book of being bleak however there are some lighter moments that had me smiling to myself along with some very funny one liners.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 14/20

Anita’s Thoughts: 

As a person who loves realistic fiction, especially dark works, I expected this book to be completely up my alley.  Unfortunately, I think it was almost too realistic, and as a result it dragged.  The same basic hopeless scenario played itself out over and over again between alcoholic Agnes and her son, Shuggie.  She drinks to ridiculous excess, alienates her children in turn, cavorts with unavailable men, repeat.  It’s a bit unrelenting, and honestly, I never really felt like I knew any of the characters well enough to empathize fully.  There were two scenes where I really felt moved: one when Agnes leaves Shuggie all alone on New Year’s Eve and another when they move for a fresh start, and Shuggie realizes that the whole idea of leaving the past in the past is not as easy as it sounds.  Two scenes in book of this length just isn’t enough.

The highlight of this novel is definitely the use of dialogue and the strong descriptions and sense of place.  The author uses a lot of slang, and yet it is still perfectly readable.  His descriptions of the physical manifestations of alcoholism and poverty are outstanding; I could really picture the story.  In fact, the whole effect was unfortunately a little too made-for-tv like for my taste.  It was well described, but not really deep and not especially fresh.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 13/20

Nicole’s Thoughts: 

I started out reading this and made it about 30% and I was struggling so much getting though, so I picked up the audio and that helped.  I’m just not feeling the Booker books this year – the judges certainly had a “type” and it’s just not my type.

The writing was very good, and I adored Shuggie.  I wish the book had been more about him and less about his irredeemable, abusive, alcoholic mother.  I would loved to have known how he turned out coming from that situation.

Unfortunately, there was nothing new in the story, and it was fairly long.   Alcoholic parent ruins their own life, and the lives of their children.   I would definitely be interested in more of Stuarts writing with a subject matter that doesn’t depress the heck out of me.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: .5/2
Total: 11.5/20



Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 3.5/4
Plot development: 3.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20


Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 20/20


  1. Apeirogon 18
  2. Shuggie Bain 15.3
  3. Such a Fun Age 11.1
  4. Redhead at the Side of the Road 11

Have you read it?  What do you think?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy S #

    Wow, Anita, I really thought you would love this one! I listened to it, too, Nicole, and I was enraptured. It was bleak, but I just loved it.


    August 24, 2020
    • pbtanita #

      Me too, Tracy! I was very surprised when I didn’t, but I didn’t end up really caring about the characters, so something was missing for me.


      August 29, 2020
  2. I struggle with books where the parent’s make blatantly selfish decisions which endanger their children – for example I wasn’t a fan of Half-Broke Horses which others seem to love


    August 25, 2020

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