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Bleak, Hopeless and Beautiful : Douglas Stuart's 'Shuggie Bain'

Shuggie Bain depicts the childhood of the titular Shuggie growing up in and around Glasgow; the son of an alcoholic mother (Agnes) and a good-for-nothing, abusive, repugnant father (Shug). The story is marred with bleakness, it is a gritty narrative of Shuggie's struggles: his desperate attempts to keep his mother away from the alcoholism that ravages her, turning her into an unstable and suicidal shell of her former self, the torture he faces at the hands of bullies who constantly lambast him for being different and the siblings who all eventually flee from home in a desperate act of self-survival - leaving young Shuggie to fend for himself.


The book is every bit as bleak as the surrounding's of the estate they move to in an attempt to begin a clean slate. The desolate pits act as an analogy of their own barren lives, the murky marshes represent the constant bog Agnes and her hapless son find themselves in.


Shuggie's own abuse at the hands of older men is portrayed in an incredibly harrowing way: on one desperate trip to find his drunken mother, Shuggie is molested by a black-taxi driver, recounting the sordid ways the man seeks pleasure from touching Shuggie in the most inappropriate ways. His anguish does not relent upon finding his mother, who at a party is found by Shuggie under a pile of coats, clearly having been violated herself. The heartbreak is confounded by the fact that this this young boy on a quest to save his mother is unable to save either of them.


Spoiler alert: Agnes meets her gristly and entirely unsurprisingly end as she chokes on her own vomit, an apt final act of a woman consumed by her demons.


Stuart depicts Agnes's involuntary reliance; on men, who eventually all leave her: on alcohol provided often times by aforementioned men who are only after one thing and her dependence on Shuggie as roles are reversed and he adopts the parental role of the carer in the relationship.


One beautiful thread it woven throughout the book's tapestry, of Shuggie's escapism into dance, the innocence he feels when he plays with young girl's toys and his adept way of plaiting hair. For every glimmer of hope the book holds, it is frequently dashed by troubling scenes of violence and grittiness.

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