[I am half-way through reading this 2020 novel. I am reading it in four or five sections, writing in detail about each section before reading on. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
16th April 2021
Chapter 1—1992, South Side and Chapters 2-7—1981, Sighthill
This is going to be difficult to write about. I’m pretty sure I can see what Douglas Stuart is attempting to do—contrast the dreams of at least two of the characters with the brutal circumstances of their lives that contrive to make a nonsense of them. Stuart does the conventional thing of focusing on the points of view of different characters in turn, but the one who gets the most space in Sighthill is Agnes, Shuggie’s mother. She is the one with the Hollywood smile, courtesy of the false teeth she has had since her late teens. She’s also holding up pretty well for a 39-year-old, her hair as black as ever—which, admittedly, shades over into a sad-looking navy blue when she overdoes the bottled colorant. In her mid-20s, with her two children, she had left a considerate, loving husband for a much more exciting man. Shug Bain the taxi driver is known for being able to have any woman he wants, and she’s thrilled that of all of them she’s the one he’s chosen to make a new life with. It’s only later that we discover the deal between them was that they both leave the children behind. She just couldn’t do it, and he is mortified by what he sees as a betrayal. We know that this maternal bond is at least as strong as all the other drives in her—there are plenty—and I wonder whether this novel is going to be her tragedy.
So what’s so difficult? Whilst I realise I’ve read less than a quarter of this novel, I don’t think I like what Douglas Stuart is doing. Or, rather, I don’t like the way he is doing it. It might be said that, like a lot of debut novelists, he’s writing about what he knows. He, like Shuggie, was a five-year-old on the Sighthill Estate in 1981, he had an alcoholic mother, and by the age of seventeen he was living on his own. And he’s gay, as I’m guessing Shuggie is too. All of this is in the public domain, on Wikipedia, and I’m absolutely fine with it. Why wouldn’t I be? Stuart has first-hand experience of growing up in Glasgow at a time when working people in the city were facing growing hardships. Unemployment and life in poorly planned high-rise developments led to a quick deterioration in living standards, disaffection amongst young people, and a rise in domestic violence.
This is well known, and became common in cities not only in northern Britain but all over the western world. But Glasgow, since long before any of the industrial decline the 1970s, had a reputation as a proverbially hard city. It was always known to be full of hard men, where women who were just as hard would nonetheless have to fight to make sure their husbands wouldn’t drink all their wages between Friday night and Sunday morning. Some would go looking for their men in the pubs on Friday nights to make sure there would be enough money for the week, a universal truth cited in the novel in connection with Agnes’s father. He was the only man in their street who came home and gave his wages to his wife on a Friday, when all every other man was in the pub.
And so on. We know all of this, and about the women who had to sell sex, the routine violence indoors and out, and the rest. All the worst clichés about urban decay stick to Glasgow better than anywhere else in the country, so what better place to be born in if you want to make a name for yourself as a novelist? It’s all there.
And it’s all there in this novel. In the 80 or so pages of Sighthill, if you aren’t being messed up it’s only because you’re the one doing the messing up. You’re a sex addict, so pissed off with your alcoholic wife you make sure she knows all about your serial adulteries. That’s Shuggie’s father. Or you reach such a level of booze-soaked frustration you set fire to your own bedroom. That’s his mother. Or you are only saved from a ‘Glasgow smile’—a slash from the mouth across the cheek—because you guess correctly which sectarian football side to pretend to support, then avoid a probable rape from the same glue-sniffing kids because one of them recognises you as the sister of someone he knows. This is Shuggie’s much older half-sister Catherine as she goes out looking for her brother, Shuggie’s older half-brother Leek, in his safe hiding-place away from his chaotic family.
Or you get so drunk and incapable that your husband reaches a pitch of angry frustration intolerable enough for him to subject you to graphically described marital rape. You can lock your legs all you like, he’s going to give you what you deserve. So much for a welcome weekend break in Blackpool, Shug’s treat for the long-suffering Agnes. It had been another dream, come to nothing because—because people are so messed up they can’t help sabotaging every single thing. With Agnes the dream is of glamour or, if she can’t find that—in Blackpool she definitely can’t—it’s oblivion she craves. With Shug it’s the difference between the Agnes he must genuinely love—he stays with her for thirteen years—and the Agnes he just can’t steer away from the hard drink. He only ever drinks milk.
This is just a taste of the brutality of these characters’ lives. The taste of flat supermarket lager, the smell of sweat, glue and stale semen in the now little-used den where Leek hides, and where Catherine escapes with nothing worse than her new boots ruined. I would say that it’s literally all like this and, as Sighthill comes to an end with Shuggie’s father driving them to a rented house he’s been offered in what turns out to be a circle of hell—in fact, in a pit village next to a coal mine that’s being shut down, this being Thatcher’s 1980s—I can’t see it getting any better.
Reading the Wikipedia article just after I finished reading Sighthill set alarm bells ringing for me. I’ve long had a suspicion about expat authors writing about their home countries as if they have a licence to write what they damned well please—Stuart has been living in New York for over twenty years—but, in this case, to me it feels almost like a betrayal. I find it hard to forget that he’s a debut novelist, unremittingly layering detail on hideous detail of the paucity of these people’s lives. And what I’m feeling isn’t pity for them, but exasperation at a writer who presents a community in which not only is nobody undamaged, but nobody ever shows any human qualities that aren’t mawkish or second-rate. Docherty by William McIlvanney, set in an equally impoverished fictionalised Kilmarnock earlier in the 20th Century, is definitely not like this: however brutalised some of the characters might have become in it, they always retain some vestige or echo of humanity. And James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, set in a similar Glasgow to Shuggie Bain and admired by Stuart, isn’t like this either. Those were not debut novels, and you can tell: brutalisation is a horror that it takes a more experienced writer than Stuart to present in a way that doesn’t diminish the characters.
Perhaps my difficulty is that these issues have an almost personal resonance for me. I was brought up in an industrial city that underwent slum clearance in the 1960s—the house I was born in was demolished, along with acre after acre of other 19th Century terraces—followed by large-scale industrial decline in the 1970s. The street my family moved into became more and more run-down, the high-rise housing estate around it was itself demolished, and now fly-tipping is common there and in some other streets nearby. I don’t live there now, not even in the same city, and I wouldn’t dream of portraying it in terms of the residents’ brutishness and ignorance in the way I feel Stuart has done. I hope he comes to realise in the next chapters, set in the pit village, that he doesn’t have to make it all feel so one-dimensionally awful. I hope there’s some humanity soon.
But I should rewind to fill in some details, starting with The South Side. The novel opens with this short bookend chapter, giving us a taste of Shuggie’s life at the age of sixteen. The rest of the novel, aside from the final bookend chapter, looks as though it’s about him and his family starting when he was only five years old. Now, at sixteen, Shuggie is having to do a thankless job in a supermarket’s butchery department to pay the rent on a seedy room, having left home when he was still only fifteen. He wants to go to hairdressing school, sometimes goes to the college to admire and envy the lives of the students there, and it seems pretty certain that nothing in his life so far has gone well. We guess that part of the problem might be that a working-class boy in 1990s Glasgow wanting to be a hairdresser will have to do it on his own. We also guess he’s probably gay, and are not at all surprised in a later chapter when his mother realises that what her five-year-old son would really like to play with is a doll. It won’t help that his father is an aggressively serial womaniser, both on and off the estate they live on. In the Blackpool guest-house, he is contemptuous of the ‘effeminate’ sound of a man’s voice as he complains about the noise Agnes is making, and would knock him down if he showed his face.
Sighthill is where the family has lived, sharing her parents’ sixteenth-floor flat, since Agnes left her first husband. The first thing we’re presented with is her dream of glamour as she leans out of the window to smoke: ‘The damp wind kissed her flushed neck and pushed down inside her dress. It felt like a stranger’s hand, a sign of living, a reminder of life. … She wanted to show the city this claret velvet dress.’ But there’s none of this when she turns back to the room, only other women, neighbours and her own mother, playing cards for pennies. They don’t even want to dance, until the usual winner has nearly all their money in front of her. Even then it’s no fun, the only good thing for Agnes being the glimpse it lets her catch of a pack of lager her parents have hidden. We don’t realise yet just how important every drop of booze is for her.
Catherine is in the flat, having to look after Shuggie, and if Leek’s around he’s keeping out of sight. He’s good at that. Catherine has an underpaid job, while Leek is still at school. When Shug arrives, he hardly addresses Agnes. He offers to give one of the neighbours a lift home—tantamount to a slap in the face for Agnes. The woman lives in the next building, and the lift will be no more than a few yards. He won’t be back for hours, Agnes knows.
In other chapters we follow Shug on a night shift, looking for customers and women he’ll be able to have sex with. He knows exactly where the best pick-up points are, and if none of them are suitable women, at the end of the shift there’s always Joanie the radio operator. But before that, on this night, there’s a specific instruction he knows is going to take him to a woman he’s been seeing, and who he’s tired of now. When he gets to her he lets her know how annoyed he is, and makes it clear that this is going to be the last time. She loves him, she says, and his response is as cruel as we’ve seen him with Agnes. ‘Aye, well take yer fuckin’ knickers off then. I’ve only got five minutes.’
Is that enough about this family for now? If Shug has a heart, which he might have, he keeps it well hidden. Meanwhile Catherine has persuaded herself that the best way out for her will probably be marriage to a Catholic boy connected to work—Agnes’s first husband had been a Catholic, to her Chapel-worshipping parents’ disgust—while Leek escapes into fantasies of drawing which are as sustaining to him as the booze for his mother and sex for Shug. When Catherine sees some of his sketchbooks at the seedy, urban version of a boys’ den where he hides away because nobody else goes there now, she’s impressed. They are full of the inevitable big-breasted women astride fantasies of pumping road machines or fighter jets, but they are as good as anything she’s ever seen on a magazine cover. She tells him he could make a career of it, but he seems unimpressed by the idea.
And that’s nearly it. Following Agnes’s episode with a lighter and the bedroom curtains—she seems simply to have wanted to show Shuggie how lovely the flames would be—things have reached a crisis. Her father takes her across his knee, literally, to whip her with his belt. He fully believes that all her problems are down to the way he spoilt her as a child, always letting her know how proud he was of the jealous looks all the other parents would give. Shug is offered a house somewhere outside the city, with a garden and its own front door and, while Agnes buys new clothes for herself and the kids, he spends money on fine luggage just for himself. She looks a million dollars as they leave, the older children having failed to persuade their grandparents to let them stay. And… what? ‘“What a shitehole,” she slurred. “And to think I dressed up nice for this?”’
Chapters 8-19—the first twelve chapters (of 20) of 1982, Pithead
Does it get any better? What do you think? It’s immediately clear why Shug had carefully packed only his own clothes and belongings into his fancy new cases. After the rest of the family go through the embarrassment of having their lives stripped bare as all their belongings are paraded before the staring gallery of neighbours—Stuart insists they all look like copies of each other—Shug keeps his own counsel. He never even takes his suitcases from the taxi, instead driving away with them later to—where? To where Joanie the radio operator is waiting for him, of course, although we later learn she has (or had) seven children of her own.
Is Shug hiding a heart anywhere? It seems unlikely, after he’s decided to dump Agnes in the middle of nowhere. We get variations of that phrase as the truth dawns on her about where she’s been dumped and why. If she was going to sabotage her relationship with him, he wasn’t going to let her turn her attention to any of the other men in Sighthill. In Pithead, with the hard-faced first- or second-generation Irish wives—and all their neighbours seem to be related—there’ll be nobody to turn her attention to at all. OK, there’s an unexpected ray of hope in Chapter 19, but I’m expecting everything will turn dark again pretty soon after that.
Chapters 8-18 are all dark. That’s how it is in this universe. The reader sees—Stuart had left us in no doubt as he described it, from the inside of her disintegrating mind—what a crisis the curtain-burning incident had been. It’s a full-on psychotic breakdown. All Shug sees is a chaotic woman he wants out of his life—but, inevitably, he doesn’t go for a clean break. Nothing’s clean about any of it. He keeps Agnes dangling, driving over some nights when he feels like it and leaving her in a perpetual fog of half-anticipation. There are a lot of variations on the theme of men’s power over women in this novel, and this is Shug’s. Now that she’s miles out of the way, he can exploit her dependency on him for as long as it suits. He enjoys sex with her—in these chapters, Stuart insists on her ability to continue making herself attractive—but when she starts with the pestering phone calls he decides to finish with her. She’s on her own.
Except she isn’t, of course, because the children are there too. And they don’t like it any more than Agnes does. At least Catherine is old enough, and Agnes is usually semi-conscious enough, for her to spend a lot of time at her boyfriend Donald’s house. In fact, he has a plan—he’s been offered a job in South Africa, in the Transvaal, supervising the people Shug calls the kaffirs. The conversation takes place when Catherine takes Shuggie to see family members he’s never met before. There’s Donald, soon to be Catherine’s husband, Shug’s brother Rascal—yes, really—and there’s Joanie. Shug pretends she’s Shuggie’s new mother, and says some very nasty things to the boy about his real one. Joanie is embarrassed. The reader is disgusted. This man is now just another in the long line of irretrievable souls in a novel I’m finding it harder and harder to read.
After this, Catherine is off and away. One time, Agnes gets Leek to phone the long number she left, but Catherine pretends she isn’t able to speak to her. This is the girl Agnes brought with her on the fresh start she was supposed to be making with Shug all those years ago, but we get it. One of the many, many unintended outcomes of an alcoholic’s lifestyle is the alienation of everyone around. Respect? Sympathy? Forget it. If you’re lucky, somebody might feel sorry for you once in a while… but that’s not what your kids do. Even Shuggie, the ever loyal little gentleman—I can’t remember who compares him to a middle-aged man in a child’s body—finds it hard sometimes.
The hardest thing is when Agnes’s two great dependencies come together, as they often do when Shuggie is around the age of about eight or nine. (He’s ten at the point I’ve reached.) He never knows what, or who he is going to find when he arrives home from school. It might be his mother alone, in any one of half-a-dozen modes from apathetic to dangerous. If she’s decided to be sober—these times do happen, especially after an encounter she has with a recovering alcoholic who describes all the signs he recognises in her—there might be the smell of soup gently bubbling on the stove and a smiling welcome. But often, there’s one of his new uncles, keen to be rid of him and sometimes going so far as to give him some money to spend. Shuggie puts it with his other savings and stays home, watching the television. At other times, they’re already upstairs and he waits, trying not to listen. They wink at him when they come down, and don’t offer him anything.
But worse than them are the aunties. Shuggie hates the way these want nothing in the world more than to spend the day getting drunk with his mother. Stuart presents one called Jinty as the archetype, by way of a particularly unappealing set-piece session. She arrives to find Agnes fighting off the shakes, and she wheedles her way in by way of sharing Agnes’s last hidden can—it always has to be a shared activity with Jinty—then bringing out the two she has hidden herself. (‘You can pay me later.’) And it goes on from there. Somehow, there’s always a way to acquire more from somewhere, which is what she does. She has the idea that Agnes should call up a dull, forgettable man on the estate, known for having a job, and therefore some money. And, for reasons that become clear, he’s unattached.
It becomes clear that Jinty isn’t matchmaking. She’s playing a gruesome little pimping game. She dials the man’s number, gets Agnes to invite him over—he’ll be there in an hour, he says—then gets Agnes to tart herself up. She needs to, because she’s looking terrible following what was effectively a rape by a taxi driver, and Agnes had earlier offered Jinty a squirming description of how things had turned out so badly the night before. There’s a sleazy voyeurism lurking inside Jinty and, after the man’s arrival with beer and vodka, we think the seediness of the whole afternoon could only be crowned with her watching Agnes taking the man upstairs. But things don’t go well, especially after Jinty turns the confession of the near-rape into a lurid tale of Agnes’s serial one-night-stands with every taxi driver in the city. Agnes just can’t keep the vomit down as she tries to carry on with a slow dance to some schmaltzy record, and… and what? As always when the fun stops, Jinty makes her excuses and leaves.
Stuart is good at these set pieces. Somehow the language is as violent as these people’s lives. Another scene of almost harrowing self-abasement is when Agnes decides to do whatever is necessary to get some boyish experience from the one of the men in the street. There is absolutely no love lost between Agnes and his wife, Colleen… but she would love him to take Shuggie fishing with his boys, as he’s intending to do that weekend. He’s quick to accept what she’s offering in return. It’s over in minutes, and that Saturday we’re with Shuggie as he makes all the fussy little preparations we would expect. It’s as unsurprising as every other little knock-back in this book when, having taken his truck to the end of the street to turn it around, he roars past in it leaving Shuggie standing. In fact, he isn’t really disappointed at all. One of the most thrilling afternoons he ever spends is with a tough girl who rescues him from some bullies, then shows him her collection of My Little Ponies. She doesn’t really like them—they are guilty presents from her disappeared mother—but Shuggie is enthralled. Following a row with the girl, he steals two of the ponies as he leaves.
Meanwhile, there’s Leek. He’s already feeling left behind when Catherine is only spending nights away with Donald. Once she’s gone to South Africa there seems to be almost nothing in his life. He is on one of the government’s statistics-massaging ‘training schemes’, a non-existent so-called apprenticeship doing nothing useful while working for a company only doing it for the pay-outs. He has dreams of making some money and making his own life away from Pithead, and one of his schemes is stealing valuable copper from the huge building above the now disused mine. One chapter has him surveying the black slag-heaps surrounding the mine, an alien landscape he sees with the eye of an artist. (He carries an acceptance letter from the art school he applied to a year or two earlier. We realise he can’t possibly go while he is the only person standing between Agnes and complete chaos.)
Shuggie arrives on the slag-heap, struggling and complaining. Leek has only allowed him to come if he acts as a lookout…. Bad idea. We often see Leek trying to get his brother to behave more like other boys, to walk ‘as if you’re making room for your cock,’ and maybe he’s unwilling to accept how little success he’s having. Shuggie as a lookout? For a start his mind is a long way away when the watchman appears, and when he does Shuggie just runs. The man follows, and Shuggie only escapes by wading into a foul crater of black mud—which Leek later has to extricate him from. Then he has to go back for the wellington boots Shuggie daren’t leave behind, as his mother has only just bought them from the ubiquitous retail catalogue, run by local women who charge interest when the small weekly repayments fall late, as they always do. Meanwhile the black, toxic-seeming landscape of this chapter stands for the ruin of all their lives. What does Leek’s broken false teeth plate stand for, rendered useless by the watchman’s assault?( Or the man’s head injury for that matter, rendering him eligible for a disability pension and regarded by all as a blessing. So he can’t speak so well? Everyone decides that makes a welcome change.)
These are their intertwined lives. Usually we’re with one family member, mostly Agnes or, rather less often, with Shuggie. Something like four or five years pass, in a mixture of set-piece scenes or—like the desperate Thursdays with every can and bottle empty and not a penny left in the house—more generalised impressions of the same thing happening over and over. The endless repetition is Stuart’s way of suggesting the year-in, year-out sameness of it all, but it’s the set pieces that make this novel memorable. And there are plenty I haven’t even mentioned. There’s something inevitable, even predictable about the unlooked-for sexual encounter Shuggie undergoes with an older boy, himself not classed by the other kids as ‘normal’. (I say predictable because I can name at least three other Booker Prize-winning novels where boys are forced into sex with older boys or men. All three are by women, as it happens)
But the best set pieces are Agnes’s, tracking different trajectories in her desperate life. There’s the sex, either a terribly needy version of Agnes’s search for love—the rape by the taxi-driver is one of these, vivid enough even if it only comes to us by way of Agnes’s own narration—or as a means to some end, like getting her and her friend a supply of beer and vodka, or a day of fishing for her boy. There’s the alcoholism, the most vivid definitely that tawdry day spent in Jinty’s company—but also the different ways Shuggie and Leek have to deal with what it does to her. One scene has Shuggie being forced to dial the numbers of men with a particular surname and ask for, in this case, Callum Whoever. It’s always, Nobody of that name here—until it isn’t, and she can roar her obscene abuse into the ear of the man who did her some terrible harm in the past.
And then there’s a new thing, the recognition of her own alcoholism. I mentioned the recovering alcoholic who recognised it, a garage man who lets her use their toilet when she’s soaked by the rain—and also lets her know that pawning her precious mink coat is merely delaying the inevitable decline. He spells out all the stages for her graphically, and she recognises it all. She denies every bit of it, of course, but later, we follow her going to an AA meeting. It’s different from her usual one, in a more upmarket venue with, therefore, a higher class of alcoholic. She always did like these imaginary new starts….
But, in fact, this time it seems to work. At the meeting, there’s one of Douglas Stuart’s more poetic set pieces—Leek looking down with his artist’s eye from the mountain of pit waste had been another, of sorts—in which he lets something symbolic seep into the mess. She can get no further than telling the group that she is Agnes, and ‘…I suppose I am. An alcoholic.’ A man comes to her aid, telling them all that St Agnes could not be burnt alive—‘I am in flames, but I do not burn,’ as he puts it. But, as she makes to sit down, he spells it out: ‘From your own ashes you can grow again.’ OK, we’re all suitably impressed… but Stuart wants us to remember what universe we’re in. A woman speaks softly into Agnes’s ear: ‘The bastards couldnae burn St Agnes, so they beheaded the poor lassie instead. Fuckin men! Eh?’ We should probably file that away for later.
This is the end of Chapter 18, and I already mentioned the ray of hope that comes in the next chapter. It’s signalled from the start of it: ‘Agnes stepped out of her own ashes in time for Shuggie’s tenth birthday….’ In fact, Agnes finally seems to be sorting out her life. She gets a job—what are the chances?—as the cashier in the nearest petrol station. And she keeps herself glamorous-looking enough for the night-shift taxi drivers sometimes to have to form a queue to spend a few minutes in her company. No, really. And one of them impresses her, clearly not a career driver—he has neither the pallor not the flabby gut the lifestyle brings with it—and is genuinely different. He’s a widower called Eugene and… one thing leads to another. This is definitely not about a one-night stand, so he takes her out. Stuart is clearly pleased with his risen-from-the-ashes idea, because she calls herself Phoenix Rising in a silly stage-game he gets her to take part in—even though, of course, she is as sober as she has been for months now. Eugene is even OK about it—and so is she—when they realise that he is the brother of the hated neighbour, Colleen….
Too good to be true? With nearly 200 pages remaining, I wouldn’t bet on things staying like this for long.