Any time-traveller arriving in Britain this winter could be forgiven for thinking they’d landed in a particularly odd fever-dream of the eighties: Princess Diana is all over the news, pie-crust collars and shoulder pads are all the rage, and there are thousands of TikTok videos of teenagers cutting their hair into mullets.
But amidst our fixation upon a sea of designer ball-dresses and cardboard-Queen impressions is Shuggie Bain, the 2020 Booker Prize-winner by Douglas Stuart. It is a rare breed, in that it is a Booker novel that is actually worth the paper it is printed on (Girl, Woman, Other – awful, The Testaments – even worse, Milkman – so, so, so inexpressibly boring).
The book follows the life of its eponymous character: Shuggie Bain, a young “wean” growing up with his alcoholic mother Agnes, his absent, violent father “Big Shug”, and his siblings Leek and Catherine. The novel’s fabric is eighties Glasgow: the family moves from Sighthill – a high-rise housing estate which had already fallen into disrepair by the time Stuart’s novel begins, and is now demolished – to Pithead, post-industrial, grey-scape mining suburb, and later to a tenement flat in the East End. With each new move, the family fractures and shrinks; Big Shug leaves to start a new family, Catherine emigrates to South Africa, and Leek escapes across the city. The novel begins and ends with Shuggie Bain living alone on the South Side.