“Shuggie Bain” – Douglas Stuart

I believe that this novel will probably either be a hit or a miss for readers, you’ll either hate it or love it. I ended up landing somewhere right in between. So let’s directly get to the breakdown and the explanation of the reasoning behind my 3/5 ★ rating:

  • +1 ★ for the beautiful writing:

The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs.

p. 7
  • +1 ★ for being able to portray human emotions so deeply and beautifully, in such a touching and heartbreaking way;

  • +1 ★ for writing such a tangible story that feels relevant, universal and making you see alcoholism from a different angle, what it’s like for children growing up around parents who are suffering from this addiction:

“I think the drink will kill her, and I feel like it’s my fault.”

“Aye. It probably will kill her,” she said, much as if she were only discussing the weather. “But like I said, it’s a slow road and there’s nothing you can do to help her.”

p. 393
  • -1 ★ for the amount of time it took me to finish the book… 87 days to get through 430 pages is veeeery slow for my standards 😅 It was really hard to get into it and I found short reading sessions not really doable with the way it was written. That’s why I ended up picking it up less often, knowing that I needed a certain amount of time to get back into the story;

  • -1 ★ for the Scottish dialect, which I personally often found difficult to handle. I could see those readers who are from Scotland or who have lived there for some time, being able to relate to the story more.

There were moments that somehow reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life“. Those parts of the story when everything felt just as raw, just as painful and its mood was similarly depressing. I definitely suggest reading up on trigger warnings before reaching out for “Shuggie Bain“, as you really need to be in the right headspace before diving into it (substance abuse, alcoholism, addiction, rape, you’ve got them all in there). Generally, it did put me into quite a dark mood, so that’s something you should be prepared for.

It was getting harder to get up in the morning, to let the day in, to come back to his body and stop floating around behind his eyelids, where he was free.

p. 147

Quoting the first sentences of the book here, as they sum up its style perfectly:

The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering down below. The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.

p. 3

When continuing on reading, there were so many aspects that I felt conflicted about:

  • I loved the deep-dives into the different characters’ thoughts and personalities but I also felt completely lost among them in the beginning. They were all introduced too quickly, without a proper introduction, so that I actually had to sketch out a character map to understand who was who;
  • The majority of the described scenes are really long, so that you have the possibility to get deeply sucked into them. That’s also what made it difficult to jump in and out of the book though. For me it created an obstacle, as I knew that each time I’d pick the book up, it would take me quite a while to get back into it;
  • Whereas a lot of the descriptions of the scenes were really slow, which I enjoyed once I got into them, there were also tons of sudden jumps in time between them, where you felt a bit disappointed that you didn’t get more details from the author.

Most importantly though, I felt like the characters were crafted masterfully. The thoughts of and the language of both the mother and the children, for example, were incredibly believable. Especially the parts told from a child’s perspective left my heart aching, just like the one below:

Shuggie looked relieved somehow. The nurse could see a weight shift on his shoulders. […]

“So if your body doesn’t go to heaven, it doesn’t matter if another boy did something bad to it in a bin shed, right?”

p. 181

All in all, if you’re still curious to read this winning novel of the 2020 Booker Prize, go into it without any expectations, besides being emotionally prepared for a rollercoaster ride to a setting of doom, hell and negativity 🙈 If you’re lucky, you might end up among the group that will fall in love with Stuart’s writing, so I’ll end the review on exactly that – one last beautiful quote from the book:

Agnes Bain pushed her toes into the carpet and leaned out as far as she could into the night air. The damp wind kissed her flushed neck and pushed down inside her dress. It felt like a stranger’s hand, a sign of living, a reminder of life.

p. 17
“Shuggie Bain” – Douglas Stuart

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-152-901-929-2
Picador, 2020

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