Shuggie Bain will break your heart – and put the pieces back together again

Last night I went to Malmö City Library, to my first indoor cultural event since December 2019. And fittingly, wonderfully, it was Douglas Stuart, talking about Shuggie Bain. As I have written elsewhere, this book is astonishing, a tour de force of love and despair. Acclaimed by critics, loved by readers, translated into a slew of languages, and famously, the winner of the Booker Prize in 2020, despite the pandemic, despite the lockdowns and travel bans and struggle of the last 18 months.

What can I say, other than – read this astounding work of fiction. And then his second book when it is published next year. And then the next one.

Douglas Stuart was interviewed by a male Swedish journalist; the audience was almost totally made of up of women over fifty, a few with mobility walkers, and they knew Shuggie, and they loved him. When the journalist asked who had read the book – a question that astounded me, since why else would you go to reading? – almost every hand went up, and the ones that didn’t raise their hands might have been the ones who had the book in front of them, open and reading, before the event started. When Douglas Stuart was introduced, I started crying, the way I normally do at weddings. When he started speaking, I realised this was the first Scottish voice I had heard since the beginning of the pandemic that was not being mediated by a screen.

At one point, the journalist commented on the “worn-out, middle-aged women” that Big Shug, Shuggie’s father, chases after, clearly not comprehending Shug’s desire or need. Douglas Stuart, otherwise modest, gentle, very funny, and fiercely intelligent, responded immediately by defending the “worn-out, middle-aged women”. I don’t know if the journalist noticed the fire in Douglas Stuart at that point, but I did, and I hope the largely Swedish-speaking audience did too.

I was there with my husband, who like me, read the book in one fell swoop and was utterly drawn into the world created by Douglas Stuart. In fact, when reading how Eugene, the new boyfriend of Shuggie’s mother Agnes, gets her to drink again, my husband was so enraged, he threw the book down and came rushing to me, bristling with anger:

“How could Eugene do that? How could he be so bloody stupid!?”

And I had no answers, since Agnes was doomed by her addiction, and we could not save her, and we would have to bear that. And I thought how we cared so much about a fictional character because Shuggie Bain is an extraordinary novel, a kaleidoscope of fractured emotions, a magical piece of storytelling. And I thought of how we are damned by our birthplace and birth time, of how love and hate run through every heart, and of how you can never, in the end, really leave home. In lucid, beautiful and often hilarious language, Douglas Stuart conjures up a world that enables us to suspend our belief while allowing us to enter our own interior world.

At the beginning of the event, Douglas Stuart gave a succinct and poetic summary of the rise and fall of Glasgow, the second city of the Empire, locating the book for the Swedish audience, with all the contradictions of this vibrant, broken, changing city. My sociologist professor husband described the summary as “social history, perfectly told”, and realised he had to read the book again, as soon as possible.

And me? I was overwhelmed by homesickness, that unbearable pain of longing that demands to be felt, and cannot be escaped. A feeling made of clouds and flimsy stuff. A feeling that can knock you over.

I had many reasons to leave Scotland, and right now, given Covid 19 and Brexit, many reasons to stay away. Douglas Stuart has described himself as an “economic migrant”, and he is one of many, from a country that has been defined by leaving and exile for centuries. When I left, I barely looked back, and didn’t miss a damn thing. I was searching for a freedom I could not find at home.

And now – will I go back? Would it even be possible? Only time will tell. But Shuggie Bain will keep me company until I know.