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Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Is it at all possible to say that real life is too tragic? That anything in real life can be too tragic? That there can be too much tragedy? Not at all, because life is too often too tragic. However, fiction can be too tragic because fiction (although it can be based on real life experiences) is not real life, fiction is a story about real life. And, paradoxically, when fiction is too tragic it just seems improbable, unbelievable, a bit too much.

Is this novel a bit too much of everything? It is. Is it interesting? It is. Does it have some high and some low points? Of course it does.

In a realistic, Émile Zola style, Shuggie Bain shows us the dark underbelly of 80s Glasgow, the spleen of Glasgow. The dark, the sad, the horrible: alcoholism, poverty, hunger, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, the lack of love, hopelessness, loneliness, sadness, misery, hardship, the feeling of not fitting in, of being different and isolated. Violence that begets more violence. But, unusually, the story is told in an emotionless way. In a cold, Zolaesque, true realistic style.

The pace is slow, the beginning is tedious, even boring with some absurd details (e.g. “felt like the back of his eyeballs were sweating” ?!). But eventually, as the story kept unravelling further and we had gotten to know the characters more, it was hard to stop reading. This is a dramatic, sad story lined with taxis and taxi drivers, that introduces us to the victim of the tragedy: a boy who not only has a hard life with his alcoholic, poor mother, psychologically abusive father, but a boy who is not like his peers and has to avoid them and live in complete isolation, always at the mercy of his overbearing, lost and broken mother. He says nothing, does nothing, tires to preserve the status quo. He knows solely that he has to suffer, keep quiet and carry on, take all the neglect, the abuse and keep his mouth shut. Never hoping for the best. A dark story about a sick mother and son relationship, a mother that loves him, but forgets about him; wants his affection but is cruel to him; leaves him alone, hungry, desperate. She wants to love him, but all she does is harm him all over again. Even with the glints of hope: AA, new boyfriend, with the glints of how good life could be, she does it all over again. She treats her son as her lovers, husbands, her enemy, making him care for her as if he were her parent and not the other way around.

“He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.”

There isn’t a single character in the novel (except Shuggie who is the victim) that is positive, even the well-meaning characters that seem they could affect the other characters in a positive way, turn out violent, dark, negative (father Wullie, boyfriend Eugene).

The narration is in the third person, switching from one character’s perspective into another character’s perspective, without transitions, smoothly, in a single flow. There are no different chapters or divided parts of the novel devoted to a character, but within a chapter the perspective shifts from one character to another. It in a way connects the characters, their common destiny, but shows us a very distinct, cold, realistic, objective attitude of the narrator.

“Well ye know what ah think? Ah think the more ye love someone the more they take the piss out of that. They will do less and less of what ye want and more and more of just as they fuckin’ please.”

The different characters’ perspectives tell us one more thing: they are not their own narrators, the story excludes them as narrators, as people with power over anything. They are not the owners of their own stories, they are not in control of anything in their lives. Life only happens to them and they have to take life as it is: harsh, hard, difficult and sad. Their lives happen to them in the exact way as if their lives were written by another author. They are unable and unwilling to change anything, forced to live by a story written by an omniscient narrator, a story unchangeable and final.

“He was glad, at least, to be done with that. It was clear now: nobody would get to be made brand new.”

The novel being firstly very sad, difficult and altogether tragic, it would seem obvious that an emotional approach to the characters and the story would be logical or fitting. But that is not so and that is the strongest and the best part of this novel. The novel reads as an impersonal account of events, not a novel based on personal experiences. It seems that Stuart even made sadness objective, not only the characters, events and descriptions.

Can sadness ever be objective and emotionless? The novel somehow reminds me of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, but as an emotional opposite. When you cannot help but wonder: when will it be enough? When will all the tragedies end? Because tragedies just topple on one another.

Shuggie Bain left me strangely unaffected, I just read the story, waiting what would happen next, I didn’t feel sad or distressed, I was just interested. The emotionless approach had that effect on me and I hope that that was what the author expected because that is exactly how the novel reads.

An interesting, sad story of destroyed lives lived in agony, objective and cold.

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