an autobiographical novel about a child coping with an alcoholic parent. Shuggie is a wee lad – the novel is set largely in Glasgow – who becomes noted for his la-di-dah speech and his apparent desire to be different. Agnes, his mother, is an alcoholic. She does not try to hide the fact. Anything will do, but cans of Special Brew figure large and often. She earns whatever she can in whatever way she can to fund her habit and pools the family’s benefits to the cause. She obviously does not seek employment, because she could never be sufficiently dependable slots to be relied upon. And she knows it.
Shuggie and his much older brother Leek often go hungry. They are often cold, not only because there is usually not a fifty pence piece to feed the meter, but also because what was put into the meter has been recycled to buy more booze. The television often does not work either, because it’s a pay-slot type and it too has been emptied. The mother Agnes has a relationship with Shuggie’s father, who happens to be called Shug. She has another relationship with Eugene. Both men are taxi drivers, and both have increased in girth after years of sedentary labor. The action, if that be the right word, takes place in Glasgow and then in Pithead, a rundown and already depressed mining community, if that be a relevant label for the place described. It is in these two working-class communities that Shuggie and his brother grow up, mature before their years and cope, for that is the best thing they can achieve with so much stacked against them.
Shuggie Bain is a story of survival. It is, in its own way, a story of dignity and human perseverance in the face of adversity. It is, however, very one-dimensional. I persevered with the book more out of duty, more out of a desire to support it than a true interest in what might happen to his characters. Well before the end, I was not only rather tired of repeating the same scenario, but I had also lost interest in the outcomes. Perhaps that was the point. If so, it became laboured.
There is always a dilemma for a writer when characters speak in dialect or with an accent. How much of the sound of the speech should be written? Is it wise to change the spelling of common words to indicate a different pronunciation from standard English? A problem with much nineteenth century fiction is that the middle classes seem to talk proper, but as soon as the working-class character appears, then the apostrophes suddenly appear to obliterate all the aitches. Personally, I prefer writers not to write in accents. The problem is that often it doesn’t work. In Yorkshire, one might ask, “Wots tha doin’ wi’ thy pen?” and the answer might be “Raaatin”. I come from a place where the word bus is pronounced bus, not bas or even bis. With an upper-class character, would I ever write “Air hair lair, Ha-aa-yo?” “Em fen, thiyank yo.” to indicate privilege, except when I might want to humiliate them and their class?