Shuggie Bain was the surprise Booker Prize winner last year. I was intending to read it so when I was lent a copy at the weekend I got stuck in. I’ve finished it now and I think I need therapy.
This has to be the most depressing book ever. Shuggie is the youngest child of a large family in post-industrial Glasgow. His mother is a drunk and his father is a serial adulterer and abuser who moves his family to Pithead, a hopeless dead town outside a closed-down pit, before shogging off to live with his new woman. This story starts miserably, carries on hopelessly and ends in a slough of despond. Shuggie is gay and everyone knows it; he gets it in the neck from everyone at school and all the neighbours. The family are poor enough without the drink but if his mother gets hold of the benefits book it all goes on booze and Shuggie goes hungry. Even so, the hopelessness might be bearable if there was some sort of community but the neighbours are awful to each other; the women stand around gossiping maliciously and slagging each other off and the men only come by when they want something – usually sex. Even the one or two decent men in this seem doomed to impotence. The two older children get out as soon as they can – the daughter marries and moves to South Africa and the other son decamps to a bedsit in Glasgow, leaving Shuggie alone to try and save his mother from herself. He fails of course; she dies, and Shuggie ends up hanging out with a lesbian girl who is his only friend as they both try to save her mother who is now on the game.
I couldn’t find one thing to like about this book. It was a story of unrelieved grimness, of dirt and grime, of skidmarks on pants and snot on armchairs; a story of mouldy bread and damp carpets; in short, an endless litany of disgust. It reminded me a little of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though without the murders; it also put me in mind of Orwell’s description of the shifts that poverty puts you to and how hard it is to look decent when you live in a shithole. I’m not saying it was a bad book but it depressed me so much I really do think I’m going to need therapy.