‘Shuggie Bain’ Review – by Chelsea Gallagher

By Chelsea Gallagher


The debut novel of Glasgow native Douglas Stuart masterfully captures the tension and anxiety of a child growing up amidst addiction and poverty. The title is also the name of the main character, and Stuart writes a delicate portrayal of a young boy searching for love and stability. His storytelling weaves Shuggie’s anxiety and small victories off the pages and into readers’ hearts. Reading this character’s journeys across Scotland will bring your empathy to new horizons. 

Shuggie’s gentle nature and tendencies irritate his family’s values and challenge their ideas of masculinity. From a young age, Shuggie’s mother Agnes is told that she’ll “be needing that nipped in the bud.” Instead, Agnes coddles her son and enjoys dressing him up or letting him dress her. Shuggie begins to understand taking care of his mother by keeping her dressed and presentable. He takes joy in her daily beauty routine. He appreciates her taste from a young age and enjoys the small splendors found in her closet or jewelry box. These constant attempts to represent grandeur outside of the house fall short and make Shuggie an isolated child. His style of dress and preference for finer things also add to his confusion on what is acceptable for a “normal boy”. The author sums up his main character in one beautiful line, “what good was a soft boy in a hard world”.

Shuggie’s language doesn’t fit his desolate surroundings and while he tries to learn how to be “normal” his male role models vary from a casanova father to his reclusive older brother. At one point, his brother tries to teach Shuggie how to walk normally, and he diligently practices fixing “something inside him that was put together incorrectly….It was just different, and so it was wrong.” As he navigates the neighborhood pitfalls and schoolyard bullies, this character’s journey is a triumph of self-expression. 

Shuggie Bain has received international praise and you won’t regret disappearing into the pages. Douglas Stuart’s characters become three-dimensional, and your ears will ring with specific local dialect, religious divide, and the bustling metropolitan of Scotland. Readers will feel the characters’ tears and anguish over staying true to themselves and the constant search for self-expression and freedom. Themes of sexual and domestic abuse and mental health are present throughout the entire novel and may be triggering to some readers. 

Chelsea Gallagher is a freelance writer living in Saigon. She is an avid bookworm and has never found a coconut coffee she hasn’t enjoyed. She is a big supporter of Paperbacks in Saigon and can’t wait to read more for the community. Please contact at [email protected] for any creative content creation.

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