One of several surprises in a tendentious Booker longlist was the number of debut authors selected – eight of the 13 novels are by first-timers, the largest share in the 51-year history of the prize. It has also raised hackles that nine of the books are by Americans. Douglas Stuart, author of the longlisted debut Shuggie Bain, may hold an American passport, but his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart. I first read the book as part of the selection process for the Observer’s annual January lookahead to the best first novels of the year. It sang then and returning to it now has been a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality, and could even give Dame Hilary a run for her money when it comes to the Booker’s final knockings in October.
While Hugh “Shuggie” Bain may give his name to the title of the book, it is as much about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, and her damaged, doomed attempts to be a wife and mother amid the booze-soaked brutality of 1980s Glasgow. The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager eking out a life alone in a bedsit, dreaming of going to hairdressing college while stuck working on a grimy supermarket deli counter. Then we spool back a decade, to 1981, when Shuggie is just a boy and lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, is a taxi driver and a Protestant (Agnes’s family is Catholic). He’s a wheedling, charming, violent man: “slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic”. The novel moves in leaps through the 80s as we follow Shuggie and Agnes (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the family) as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, the misery of their surroundings.
Agnes is drawn with extraordinary sympathy: she simply leaps from the page as she juggles motherhood, a violent and philandering husband and her own demons, drink foremost among them. She is troubled, lovable, vulnerable and resilient, with ambitions for her children and a vivid, painful memory of what it was to be young, to dance, to be loved. With Big Shug sleeping through the day and driving his taxi at night on journeys that are as much about scratching his sexual itch as they are about earning his living, Agnes and her youngest child are thrown together, forming a strong and complex bond. From an early scene when, drunk, she hugs Shuggie as the room they are in burns about them, we understand that Shuggie’s fate will hang upon his mother’s self-destructive impulses and her battle to overcome them.
This is a deeply political novel, one about the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society, which became a place of “men rotting into the settee for want of decent work”. It is brilliant on the shame of poverty and the small, necessary dignities that keep people going. It is heartbreakingly good on childhood and Shuggie’s growing sense of his otherness, of not being the same as the other boys on the estate. As he grows, and Agnes sinks, there’s a sense of inevitability to the story, but this does not make it predictable; rather the reader is gripped, hoping desperately that the boy and his mother free themselves from the twin traps of poverty and alcoholism.
Reading Shuggie Bain entails a kind of archaeology, sifting through the rubble of the lives presented to find gems of consolation, brief sublime moments when the characters slip the bonds of their hardscrabble existence. That the book is never dismal or maudlin, notwithstanding its subject matter, is down to the buoyant life of its two principal characters, the heart and humanity with which they are described. Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.
• Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15