Day 6·Review

Douglas Stuart's debut novel Shuggie Bain is shortlisted for the Booker — but should you read it?

The novel, inspired by Stuart’s upbringing in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has received wide acclaim for its raw, gritty portrayal of addiction and growing up in poverty. But should you read it? Day 6 Becky Toyne offers her review.

Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne says it's a book that will 'make your ears sing'

Shuggie Bain is the debut novel by Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart. (Grove Atlantic/Martyn Pickersgill)

Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart's debut novel Shuggie Bain is a treat for the heart and ears, according to Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne.

"It is a book that will make you feel so many things, and it will make your ears sing," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The novel, inspired by Stuart's upbringing in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has received wide acclaim for its raw, gritty portrayal of addiction and growing up in poverty.

It follows Shuggie, who readers meet as a five-year-old boy, and his mother Agnes, who lives with an alcohol addiction, over a 10-year period.

"It is a very beautiful — and difficult, of course — story of the child of an addict who is, you know, she's all he's got in many ways," Toyne explained.

"He is trying to help her and trying to get on with his life, and he loves his mother and she loves him, too. But she has a lot of problems and isn't able to look after him in the way that she should be."

Through it all, Shuggie faces bullying from his peers and relatives for his effeminate, precocious nature in a working-class city where masculinity rules.

"Everyone's always saying to him, 'Oh that boy, he's not right. He's not right, that Shuggie,' and he doesn't really understand what that means. But he just keeps thinking, 'I wish I could be normal and then people wouldn't pick on me,'" said Toyne.

Political, but not about politics

Stuart wrote Shuggie Bain over a 12-year period, finding time before and after his work as a clothing designer. 

"I was so involved with my career that I wrote Shuggie Bain only for myself and never dared to imagine it being published. Writing with no pressure was a lucky space to be in and a pure pleasure," Stuart told the New Yorker in an interview.

Shuggie Bain is heavily influenced by Glasgow, and while politics aren't front and centre, Toyne says the novel still touches on political themes. The story is set in a period where jobs in the Scottish city had dried up, leaving many men out of work.

"Whole housing estates of young men, who were promised the working trades of their fathers, had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity," Stuart writes in the novel.

Becky Toyne is Day 6's books columnist. (Submitted by Becky Toyne)

According to Toyne, "that's a really important detail that actually also gives the larger context to this [being] a story about women and children."

Glasgow also bleeds into Stuart's writing, as the author leans heavily on the region's accent and dialect.

"All of the characters are talking in this Glaswegian accent, which is a beautiful and very singsong-y accent," Toyne said.

"At points of the book, I realised I was reading it aloud kind of under my breath, because the musicality of that was such an important part of it."

Although the themes in the book are dark and, at times, difficult to read, Toyne says that there are moments of light underscored by Stuart's voice.

"Within that really fantastic musical dialogue, there are also moments of great raucousness and great joy and great vitality, and the touching details of the relationship between Shuggie and Agnes, and the details in general in the book," said Toyne.

So, should I read it?

The winner of this year's Booker Prize will be announced Nov. 19. Asked "should I read it?" Toyne offered an enthusiastic yes.

"I loved this book with my whole body. It was fantastic," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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