Once in while a book arrives, that in its raw honesty and compassionate storytelling evokes both discomfort and gratitude. Discomfort for its unsparing portrayal of the grimy social underbelly of institutional collapse, normalised violence, indigence, and psychological distress. And gratitude for its equally sincere vision of the minor but no less real redemption offered in shared empathy, personal resilience, and the tormented yet indefatigable love that binds broken children to their suffering parents.
Olga Tokarczuk in her Nobel lecture late 2019, had introduced the concept of the ‘tender narrator’ : “a point of view, a perspective from where everything can be seen. Seeing everything means recognising the ultimate fact that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us.”
The Art Of ‘Narrative Tenderness’: What Does It Mean?
This ecological vision is not a mere technicality, a recycled form of narrative omniscience; rather the ‘tender perspective’ is rooted in attitudes of empathy and responsibility born of the recognition of a shared inhabitation of a common world in which “every gesture ‘here’ is connected to a gesture ‘there,’ that a decision taken in one part of the world will have an effect in another part of it, and that differentiating between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ starts to be debatable.”
In Shuggie Bain, the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, Douglas Stuart brings this art of narrative tenderness to an encompassing fruition in its unsentimental yet sensitive portrait of a community in Glasgow of the 1980s: working class, disenfranchised, imploding, and deeply disillusioned.
Stuart’s novel is named after Hugh Bain, a young boy whose painful yet incandescent coming of age amidst bullying, neglect, ostracism, and a confusing negotiation with the norms of aggressive hyper-masculinity, is set against the backdrop of Thatcher era recession, a faltering welfare economy, the shutdown of the mining industry, and rising unemployment.
This devastating and devastated terrain also serves as a foil to his mother Agnes Bain's subjectivity – fractured in two by her will to take control of her life and her victimisation by the collusion of gendered violence and internalised abuse.
Boyhood Anguish Mixed With Adult Retrospective Care
These two threads form the outer ends of a complex narrative yarn made of variegated voices – ranging from a sociopath father to a well-meaning but deeply conservative taxi driver, battered women who deal with domestic violence by drowning themselves in cheap lager, precocious children who lose their innocence too soon, and struggling members of a local AA whose vulnerability is only thinly disguised by sexual promiscuity and obsequious hankering after material wealth.
But most memorably, Shuggie Bain is a firmly situated story of a place and a culture, in which the most enduring presence remains that of the nameless, internally tormented crowd of the poor and unemployed working class youth whose unaddressed trauma and rage find expression in acts of delinquency, addiction, and vandalism.
Written with an insider's empathy, in a voice rich with boyhood's anguish mixed with an adult's retrospective care, Shuggie Bain is a scathing and sobering commentary on issues both dark and relevant beyond its immediate historical setting: childhood abuse, homophobia, toxic masculinity, marital rape, bullying, and misogyny.
A Vital Link Between Individual Ennui & Collective Loss – And The Idea Of The Self
A quarter into the narrative of Shuggie Bain, the Bain family make a long and convoluted journey from Agnes Bain's paternal home to their new nuclear household in the middle of a mining district. As Shug senior's taxi passes through the site of an abandoned mine it has to comb through a file of now laid-off employees of the mining corporation who watch with vacuous curiosity this grotesque cavalcade of mismatched affluence in their ravaged landscape.
To the young Shuggie, via whose perspective this section is given to us, the despair reflected in the faces of the community at Pitshead is simply an extension of the look in his mother's eyes.
In a single sentence, Stuart forges a vital link between individual ennui and collective loss, placing the source of the self’s fallibility and its checkered biographical arc in larger sociocultural malaise.
The idea of the self as an ‘emplaced self’ is further explored in a masterfully crafted scene in which Alexander (Leek), Shuggie's older brother teaches him the 'proper' gait of a man. The two children rehearse their cowboy struts in an empty and abandoned quarry, its sinister and wild topography vividly described.
As the boys perform their private pantomime of masculinity against the telling backdrop of a dysfunctional colliery, undulating peat hills, and long stretches of slag, the ironic juxtaposition of the rhetoric of manliness with this eerie site of dilapidation elaborates through the eloquent power of imagery and atmosphere, both the impoverishment of the ideology of normative masculinity as well as the connection between this gendered ideology of aggression and conquest, and extractive practices like mining that deplete the earth's resources.
Debunking Masculinity – A Masculinity In Crisis
Shuggie Bain offers what is arguably one of this decade's most powerful diatribes against the destructive effects of a certain social construction of manliness. The mining community in which the Bains resettle is governed by ossified gender codes: masculinity is asserted and reaffirmed through uncontested acts of violence against women and children, a swashbuckling demonstration of bravado in public spaces, the valourisation of emotional suppression, apathy and anger.
But this is also demonstrably, a masculinity in crisis – Shuggie senior’s outward charm only barely conceals his narcissistic tendencies and deep seated insecurity that emerge in forms of serial abuse and emotional manipulation of his wife; the teenage boys in Shuggie’s school grapple with the locker room norms of manliness through bullying, intimidation, and physical violence; the former employees of the closed mines in dealing with a sense of emasculation and disempowerment take to alcoholism and chronic lethargy.
The most damaged and damaging form of masculine crisis appears however in the figure of Eugene McAvennie, the religious and sympathetic taxi driver who befriends the recovering Agnes but in trying to shape her into his standards of respectable and socially acceptable normalcy, pushes her off the edge of a devastating and final bout of addiction.
A Credible Portrait Of A ‘Weak’ Masculinity – Of Vulnerability & Interdependence
Stuart's critique is not an absolute damnation: Shuggie Bain has some lovable, intensely humane characters – the red-haired mechanic at the service garage who almost wordlessly recognises Agnes' predicament and encourages her without condescension or pity to take active steps towards sobriety; Wullie Campbell, Agnes' father who brings her up in a nurturing environment but is also self divided with guilt for deviating from prevalent parenting norms; Leek who balances a tentative protectiveness towards his persecuted brother and mother with a quietly insurrectionary attempt to disappear from the fields of social indoctrination and control.
However, it is in the character of Shuggie himself that Stuart offers a most compelling example of a fluid, humorous, performatively anarchic, and self reflexive relationship of the subject with the rigidities of gender.
From his attachment to Daphne the golden-haired doll of his childhood baptised in pools of rotting lager and made to take a beating for his sake in the first of many aborted rites of passage into normalcy, to his affinity for his mother's mascara that often becomes an extension of his attentive devotion to her, his love of unicorn figurines and penchant for copying dance moves on television, to his insistence on nonviolent and rational communication, Stuart offers a credible portrait of a ‘weak’ masculinity that is founded in vulnerability and interdependence.
How Stuart Masterfully Tackles The Difficult Issue Of Childhood Abuse & Parental Neglect
Shuggie Bain ultimately stands out for its affecting delineation of the trials and consolations of caring for one's loved ones even and especially when such acts are faced with opposition and certain failure. Stuart takes up with admirable boldness the difficult issue of childhood abuse and parental neglect without reducing complex and particular experiences to reductive sociological or analytical rubrics.
What the novel retains its firm focus on is the creative, tenuous, independent ways in which the victims of abuse, whether it is playground bullying, humiliation and coercion by authorities, targeted slander and public shaming, or rape, battery and corporal punishment, find avenues, vocabularies, and rituals of coping.
The burden of witnessing and coping also produces unpredictable but therapeutic solidarities, temporary intersectional truces across sworn differences, and instances of unexpected mutual caregiving, like an inebriated Agnes protecting her hostile but mentally deranged neighbour Colleen from the cruel sneers of the crowd, by clumsily wrapping her own underwear around Colleen; or when Agnes begins to wash and tend to children's hair in surreptitious exchange of alcohol, forging in the process ties of touch, comfort and nourishment.
A Heartbreakingly Poignant Narrative Of Caregiving
Shuggie's own unstinting loyalty towards his faltering mother however is what gives the novel its pathos and soul. He is both Agnes' caregiver after his elder siblings leave home, and also witness to the trauma of his mother's slow disintegration.
And it is through his eyes that we experience not only a heartbreakingly poignant narrative of caregiving: from bathing and clothing his mother to ensuring her medication and food is in place even as he struggles with school, starvation, and crippling loneliness; we also view the fragile but enduring fibre of resilience Shuggie continues to see in his mother.
He checks on a passed out Agnes before leaving for school, his tiny body hunched with the load of his satchel. He keeps an unbroken vigil for her at her untimely passing, adjusting her makeup and labouring to craft a pair of earrings out of rhinestones before her cremation.
With Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart does away with all trigger warnings and linguistic dilutions launching us into the heart of multiple catastrophes, ecological, social, moral, and psychological. It doesn't tread softly on wounded territory but remains deeply cognisant of the sources and ramifications of these scourges.
The Booker May Have Finally Come Of Age; ‘Shuggie Bain’ Is Proof
With this epic and epiphanic novel with a gentle, sensitive queer boy and his misunderstood alcoholic mother as protagonists, with its searingly revolutionary recalibration of individual strength in an adolescent's sheer determination born of unconditional love to care for his ailing mother till the very end, and its powerful message, among other things, of hope and resilience as profoundly entwined with simple, ordinary assertions of human singularity symbolised here in Shuggie's passion for dance, sometimes if only to ensure that these sources of authenticity survive for a little longer in the face of a phobic, punitive, homogenising society.
The Booker might have finally come of age.
(The author is an academic based in New Delhi. She holds a PhD in Modernist Literature and has been teaching as a visiting faculty at Ambedkar University Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)