‘Above all,’ Douglas Stuart writes in the acknowledgments to Shuggie Bain, his first novel, ‘I owe everything to memories of my mother and her struggle.’ The American cover has a black and white photograph of a boy and a woman in bed, their foreheads touching in a maternal embrace. (On the British cover, a boy sits on a post that looks not unlike a cross.) Much of the story is excruciating, and it follows in a long line of books that have trauma as the main event which have earned praise and prizes in recent decades. The jacket copy invites comparisons to Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt and Hanya Yanagihara. (Alan Hollinghurst is also present, but the implied comparison seems to be stylistic rather than thematic.) Edward St Aubyn and Karl Ove Knausgaard, with their bad dads, would also have been apt. The critic Sam Sacks has called such books ‘agony novels’, but agony by itself isn’t usually enough. The third volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle is immersed in the consciousness of a young boy: the wonder of childhood is there as well as paternal abuse. St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels are anchored in the narrator’s early experience of rape by his father, but formally the books are comedies of manners and the drama plays out in parties, drug binges, vacations. There’s a lot of child rape – at the hands of monks, johns, an evil doctor – in Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but it’s told through the recollections of a prosperous attorney living a tony lifestyle in perpetual boom-era Manhattan.
There are fewer compensations of this sort amid the sorrows of Shuggie Bain, which is set in 1980s Glasgow. The story is unrelenting, with the exception of a phase in the second half when Agnes, Shuggie’s alcoholic mother, joins AA and sobers up, but we know from the novel’s opening – a future scene of 16-year-old Shuggie working in a supermarket and living in a boarding house – that it won’t end well. The writing, however, is often exquisite; its mode realism with gothic touches. The third-person narration shifts between family members, but the focus is always Agnes, her drinking and its effects.
Agnes is Catholic and a beauty. She left the father of her two older children, Catherine and Leek, before they could remember what he looked like. Her second husband, Hugh Bain, known as Shug, is a Glasgow cab driver, an adulterer and a Protestant. Agnes’s creedal betrayal hangs over the novel’s early pages like a curse, but it’s clear enough what the real problems are: she’s a lush and Shug is a brute with a wandering eye. In a flashback we see him rape her on a seaside holiday (after dragging her upstairs by the hair, angry that she’s made a drunken scene). During one of his night shifts in the cab he has an assignation with another woman. One evening he comes home for a tea break to the flat on the Sighthill estate where they live with Agnes’s parents. Agnes, drunk on a few cans of lager, and Shuggie are having ‘a wee party’ in the bedroom she shares with Shug, playing cassettes and dancing. When Shug comes into the flat, she thinks: ‘It should have been a time to spend together.’ But he passes them by, jingling his coppers, to watch television with her parents. The scene takes a nightmarish turn:
Agnes reached across the mattress for her cigarettes, she lit one and sucking loudly, she coaxed the end into a blazing copper tip. She looked at the light for a moment, and her voice cracked with the poor me’s as she sang along with the cassette. Her right arm extended gracefully, and she held the glowing cigarette against the curtains. Shuggie watched as the ash started to smoulder and then gave off a grey smoke. He started to squirm as the smoke burst with a gasp into orange flame.
Agnes used her free arm and pulled him tighter towards her. ‘Shhh, now be a big boy for your mammy.’ There was a dead calmness in her eyes.
The room turned golden. The flames climbed the synthetic curtains and started rushing towards the ceiling. Dark smoke raced up as though fleeing from the greedy fire. He would have been scared, but his mother seemed completely calm, and the room was never more beautiful, as the light cast dancing shadows on the walls and the paisley wallpaper came alive, like a thousand smoky fishes. Agnes clung to him, and together they watched all this new beauty in silence.
The curtains were almost gone, they dripped like ice cream onto the carpet.
There is much that’s lovely about this writing, with its control and precision, and the child’s-eye images of ice cream and ‘smoky fishes’. Like the bedroom, Agnes herself is something beautiful that’s on fire. (‘I am on fire. I do not burn,’ a man at an AA meeting tells her. ‘It’s Saint Agnes’s lament.’) They are saved by Shug, who puts out the fire with wet towels and pulls his half-unconscious wife and child from the room, burning himself in the process. When Agnes comes to, she asks him: ‘Where the fuck have you been?’
This episode – not quite a suicide attempt, although one of those will follow (razor blade, living room, blood all over the good carpet) – takes place just before they move to the new flat Shug has found for Agnes and the children. Before they leave Sighthill and her parents, Agnes is beaten with a belt by her father, Wullie. ‘Am I to beat this selfish devil out of you?’ he asks. ‘I am tired of you coming first, Agnes. I’m tired of watching you destroy yourself and knowing it’s my fault.’ The threat almost makes her laugh: ‘Daddy! I’m 39!’ she says. But the beating commences and at this stage, early in the novel, it’s difficult to tell whether the book has a darkly comic heart. The answer is: not really.
Moments of levity tend to lapse into something awful. In a flashback later in the book, we learn something more about Wullie. It’s just after the war: he was deployed to North Africa and his wife, Lizzie, believes he might be dead. One day, to her surprise, he walks through the door. Lizzie locks the toddler Agnes in a cupboard, goes to the bedroom and takes off her clothes. Wullie has sex with her without removing his uniform. He hears the sounds of an infant in the room – Lizzie’s second child, fathered by the bow-legged greengrocer who was generous with meat, eggs and bread. Wullie picks him up and ‘the baby’s pink arms reached out to him, like it knew and trusted the deep well of goodness from which Wullie Campbell had sprung.’ He puts the boy in his pram, goes out for a walk and returns alone. When Lizzie asks him where her baby is, he replies: ‘What baby?’
Agnes only learns of her abandoned (or worse) half-brother as an adult. ‘What man takes a baby and just makes it go away?’ she thinks while drunk. But sober she’s envious that her mother was loved by her father in a way Shug has never loved her.
‘Why am I not enough for you?’
Shug blinked like he could not believe what he was hearing. He shook his head, and as he spoke he prodded himself in the chest. ‘No, m’lady. Why was I not enough?’
‘I’ve never so much looked at another man.’
‘That’s no what I meant.’ He rubbed at his eyes like he was tired. ‘Why did you no love me enough to stay off the drink, eh? I buy you the best of gear, I work all the hours God sent.’ He stared at the wall, not at it but through it. ‘I even thought, maybe if I gave you a wean of my own, but no. Even that wasn’t enough to keep you still.’
The novel is full of on-the-nose dialogue of this sort. When Shuggie’s older siblings talk about their aspirations – Catherine wants to get married, Leek wants to go to art school – they sound a bit like characters in a Bruce Springsteen song or a young adult novel. It wouldn’t be right to describe Shuggie Bain as a book for children, as the critic Jessa Crispin recently said of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But like those books it has a didactic fairy-tale quality. To the extent that it engages in adult psychology, the mentality portrayed is either vicious and predatory (Shug) or victimised (Agnes).
Life at the new flat in Pithead is made miserable by Agnes’s drinking – one of her habits is to have Shuggie call up men who’ve wronged her, then hand over the phone so she can scream at them – things outside are just as bleak. Shug abandons them to move in with Joanie, the taxi dispatcher. Shuggie is tormented at school and in the neighbourhood. One day he is rolled in a barrel by local bullies. An older boy saves him, but then drops his trousers and tells Shuggie to stroke him off with wet leaves.
All this pathos can tip into bathos. One morning Agnes decides that Shuggie could use a father figure and asks James McAvennie, a neighbour from across the road, to take him fishing with his kids (who also happen to be Shuggie’s main tormentors), offering him a few pounds, which he rejects. She apologises and starts to walk away, but he stops her: ‘Haud on. I’m no saying there’s nothing ye can do for me.’ After they have sex, she takes a bath (to get the grease off her skin – James is a mechanic) and cries because she’s only ever slept with her two husbands. The crying seems odd to Shuggie because she’s not drunk. On Sunday morning, he packs up some tomato sandwiches, a robot action figure to share with the other kids and sunglasses. He’s ready to go, but Agnes tells him to wait until James calls for him. Instead, James and the children drive off without him.
Shuggie is disappointed and Agnes is angry. She decides to delay her drinking so that she isn’t too far gone when she goes across the street later in the day to tell James’s wife, Colleen, that they slept together. Before she has the chance, James and Colleen get into a terrible fight. Colleen is screaming and pulling her hair out. James walks out carrying a bag and drives away in his truck. Instead of confronting Colleen, Agnes crosses the road to comfort her. Colleen says that after the birth of her fifth child she refused to sleep with James. ‘He was never any use at all that pulling out nonsense … He would have had a hundred if he could. But ah jist thought, fuck ye, McAvennie, and to spite him ah shut up the shop … That must be when he started fuckin’ around.’ Colleen rips off her clothes and lies down in the street. ‘Let Jamesy McAvennie hear,’ she says, ‘that his. Wife died on the. Road. With her old cunt out.’ Agnes, realising that Colleen has overdosed, calls an ambulance and puts her own knickers on Colleen so that she won’t be naked when it arrives.
Amid the tearing of hair and the rending of garments, the busted teeth and the vomit, a picture of a gutted Glasgow emerges. It’s the dark side of Thatcher’s Britain, another reason for the invited comparison with Hollinghurst, whose portraits of the era attend to its more glamorous precincts. But the scope of the book never really widens beyond Agnes’s drinking. The city is glimpsed, as are Shuggie’s emerging artistic sensibilities and sense of his own sexuality, but only just. Agnes is sober for a year around the time Shuggie is ten. She relapses, egged on by Shug and cajoled by her new partner, Eugene, a cab driver since losing his job as a miner, who takes her out for a fancy dinner and suggests it’s fine for her to have a drink again now that he’s around. When he brings her home drunk, Leek beats him up. There won’t be another recovery. In the final third of the novel, the gothic elements of Stuart’s realism fall away – though there is more molestation and sexual assault to come – and the book begins to feel like a memoir informed by the coping techniques of survivors. Shuggie meets another child of an alcoholic and comes to the realisation that he won’t be able to save his mother. Nobody could. But there is a sense that someone did her in. As a woman at her AA meeting says: ‘The bastards couldnae burn Saint Agnes, so they beheaded the poor lassie instead. Fuckin’ men! Eh?’