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A Review of “Shuggie Bain”: the lingering effects of poverty

Book Shuggie Bain written by Douglas Stuart propped up against a rock next to some leaves and succulents.

I bought Shuggie Bain at the beautiful beachy bookshop “Turn the Page” on Millowl (Philip Island) many moons and lockdowns ago. I quickly read it and then proceeded to recommend the book to every person I met. It quickly became one of my favourites from 2020. I have resisted reviewing this book straight away. Sometimes, I prefer to sit with a book before I give it my final thoughts. It goes against everything the capitalist click-fest of blogs and social media would have us believe – exclusivity! Get in first! First doesn’t always mean best, or most nuanced though. Or at least that is what I tell myself.

Shuggie Bain was really profound for me to read. On the one hand, so many things could not have been more different from my life, and yet, on the other hand, the universality of poverty, struggle, and the lifelong pain that comes with it transcended the pages and the dreary streets of Scotland in the 1950s.

Before I jump into the review, I wanted to talk a little bit about the author, Douglas Stuart. He wrote the book based on his own childhood and experiences with his alcoholic mother. The book took over ten years to write and the novel was rejected a lot before it was accepted for publication. Stories like that always give me hope – the book, now an award-winning debut novel has definitely shown critics who’s who! Before writing Shuggie Bain, Stuart was a fashion designer in New York. Stuart also has another novel coming out in 2022. With any run-away success first novel, I feel like expectations will be high for his next book.

I know that many people who have reviewed Stuart’s book have talked about the pseudo-fiction of it – what is real, what isn’t – while others have looked at what it is like to grow up gay in a conservative religious place like Glasgow. Today though, I wanted to talk about the presence and absence of money, how it plays out in Stuart’s novel, and what effects poverty can have on us psychologically.

Firstly, I think a lot of people assume that poverty is fixable in the sense that you give someone money, means to earn an income, access to housing, etc. and then they are set. You remove the problem, which at its most basic sense is a lack of money and then the problem goes away. However, it isn’t that simple. Poverty is as much a psychological trauma and mindset as it is a financial problem. By assuming you can solve it by addressing the latter, it can be very easy to downplay the former long and lasting effects of poverty that transcend how financially stable someone is. It is also why, in some instances, people still cannot escape poverty despite having some access to welfare. The help required to truly give people options isn’t available and we see this in Stuart’s novel and in everyday life still to this day.

Shuggie, who is the young protagonist of the story and modelled from the author’s own experiences tries to navigate government housing flats, being ‘different’ (read queer), and acting as a parent for his alcoholic and mentally unstable mother, Agnes. The idea of a child, parenting or supervising their parent is in and of itself, a painful trauma. It usually means that the child never really feels quite free to be themselves. In looking after his parent, Shuggie learns that his needs are not important. And as the novel progresses we see more and more how Shuggie minimises his own needs and wants in order to appease his mother.

The character of Agnes, who is supposed to be based off Stuart’s real mother, is extremely complex and fascinating. Firstly, there is this staunch catholicism that mixes with her protestant husband and neighbours like oil and water, coupled with these strong values about taking pride in your appearance and not ‘looking’ or ‘acting’ poor as a way to legitimise oneself and also separate oneself from one’s fellow poor neighbours. I was particularly drawn to this last value of taking pride in your appearance. It was something drummed into my head from the earliest age – “If you don’t take pride in your appearance, you don’t take pride in yourself”. I don’t know if this is some kind of leftover Scottish-ism that came over with my Dad’s family to Australia, but it is something that became not just a way of being in my household, but also a way to judge others and navigate the world.

In some ways, Shuggie internalises this too, although for him as a young queer boy, he seems to get the appearances all wrong. He is too feminine and too well-dressed – again, it makes me think of what Australians call tall poppy syndrome where you shouldn’t get too proud or stand out as someone will cut you down to size. This desire though, to take pride in appearance has real consequences when it comes to being able to afford certain clothes or aesthetics. The fixation on this, for whatever reason, is a common issue throughout the book and I have the feeling that it is both a direct result of the poverty in which the family is in and also one of the causes of the poverty.

The last thing I wanted to touch on in the novel is the presence and absence of money. All throughout the book, there are these examples of the physicality of money – something that we have since lost quite a bit of in the digital age with phone payments and credit cards. The weight of money both its lightness in the absence and its presence in the heavy clink of coins is what punctuates Shuggie’s life. Whether it figuring out a trick to get coins back from the heaters or hiding money from his mother so she doesn’t by alcohol with it, these scenes are all centred on money.

When Shuggie meets his father after a long absence, Shuggie’s father crouches down, “and Shuggie could hear the heavy swing and clash of many silver coins in his pocket” (p.141). Why would a small boy notice something like the sound of money? Wouldn’t he notice his father’s appearance after such a long absence, or how rough his father is with him? – “It’s the Bain code. Hit hem afore they hit you” (p. 141).

Even as a small child, one can learn pretty quickly the importance of money and how its lack creates stress and anger in adults. This trickles down and around the children who also internalise the worries of money from their parents. Albeit, they do so without truly understanding what it all means.

Shuggie Bain is a beautiful bittersweet novel. In many ways, reading the novel made some of my own experiences with poverty feel represented, and I felt that the true beauty of the novel was in the descriptions of poverty. Oftentimes, poverty can feel romanticised in novels. I often wonder if it is because the people writing these ‘poor’ characters have never actually been poor themselves? But those are bigger questions for another day about what authors should and shouldn’t write about.

The hype for Shuggie Bain is all deserved in my opinion. I am so looking forward to reading Stuart’s next novel. Let me know in the comments below if you have read this book and if you liked it. As always, share the reading love.