We first meet Shuggie Bain as a 16-year-old in 1992, living alone in a dirty bedsit on the Southside of Glasgow and working on a supermarket deli counter where his boss overlooks lapses in hygiene because underage labour is cheap. This debut novel tells us how he got here.
Back to 1981 and Agnes Bain is leaning from the window of the high-rise council block where she, her second husband and her three children live “all crammed together in her mammy’s flat”. Agnes is drinking, smoking, playing cards and betting the housekeeping money with three friends, “their respite from ironing in front of the telly and heating tins of beans for ungrateful weans”. The evening degenerates until “Big Shug Bain” returns from driving his taxi and takes the other women home, returning hours later; she knows what he has been doing because that’s how her own relationship with him began. Alone, Agnes remembers an early holiday together in Blackpool, Shug dragging her up the stairs of a cheap B&B by her hair when she was too drunk to walk, raping her and then offering to take her dancing the next night.
This is a story about poverty, addiction and abuse. Agnes descends through the degrading stages of alcoholism, ever more vulnerable to ever more predatory men, her only constant relationships with her children, whose knowledge of her disintegration is therefore intimate. The oldest, Catherine, marries in her late teens to get away from her mother and moves to South Africa. Alexander, “Leek”, a gifted artist who carries around with him a two-year-old letter offering him a university place, stays to try to teach Shuggie how to “act normal” – ie, appear to conform to the norms of working-class Glaswegian masculinity, which does not come naturally. He also stays in faltering hope of saving Agnes, until one day she throws him out, leaving young teenage Shuggie as her sole carer and witness.
Shug senior moves the family from the urban flat to the post-industrial wasteland of a pit village, a vague and hopeless gesture towards removing Agnes from her suppliers and companions, but the landscapes of despair left by mine closures promote nothing but sickness. “The land had been turned inside out,” Stuart writes. “The black slag hills stretched for miles like the waves of a petrified sea.” Shuggie attends school in Pithead just enough to be bullied – not because of his mother’s drinking, which is common enough, but because he doesn’t move like a boy, doesn’t like football, can’t hide his fascination for hairdressing, dolls and My Little Ponies.
Reading Shuggie Bain cannot but be a grim experience. Shuggie and Leek learn to undress Agnes after a night out, to look away from her bruised thighs and gouged breasts, to catch vomit and wipe bile. This is a world with no vocabulary for sexual consent; men do what they do and women and boys like it or lump it. Agency flickers and goes out; Catherine gets away, but Stuart signals that this offstage escape to 1980s South Africa is only participation in another form of oppression. There’s heroism in Agnes’s commitment to self-presentation and domestic order, holding on to her lipstick and tights as her liver packs up, making sure the house is immaculate before the next rapist stops by; and something sadder than heroism in Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother, which is not a choice but a fact. Children love their carers – that’s how abuse works.
Shuggie Bain comes from a deep understanding of the relationship between a child and a substance-abusing parent, showing a world rarely portrayed in literary fiction, and to that extent it’s admirable and important. I had qualms, about Shuggie’s precocity and particularly about the depiction of women, who are all scrawny or flabby, wearing too much makeup or not enough, and whose clothes are always wrong – “tight leggings” suggest loose morals while “baggy leggings” show slovenliness. Stuart’s prose is baroque, rich in adjectives with a habit of pointing out what he’s just shown. These things are partly a matter of taste and training, but sometimes impatience with the heavy-handed prose interrupted my interest in Shuggie and Agnes.
• Shuggie Bain is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.