This month’s best paperbacks: Hilary Mantel, Shuggie Bain, sex robots and more

Shuggie Bain Douglas Stuart

The 2020 Booker prize winner

While Hugh “Shuggie” Bain may give his name to the title of the book, it is as much about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, and her damaged, doomed attempts to be a wife and mother amid the booze-soaked brutality of 1980s Glasgow. Young Shuggie lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, is a taxi driver and a Protestant (Agnes’s family is Catholic). He’s a wheedling, charming, violent man: “slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic”. The novel moves in leaps through the 80s as we follow Shuggie and Agnes as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, the misery of their surroundings.

Agnes is drawn with extraordinary sympathy: she simply leaps from the page as she juggles motherhood, a violent and philandering husband and her own demons, drink foremost among them. She is troubled, lovable, vulnerable and resilient, with ambitions for her children and a vivid, painful memory of what it was to be young, to dance, to be loved. With Big Shug sleeping through the day and driving his taxi at night on journeys that are as much about scratching his sexual itch as they are about earning his living, Agnes and her youngest child are thrown together, forming a strong and complex bond.

This is a deeply political novel, one about the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society, which became a place of “men rotting into the settee for want of decent work”. It is brilliant on the shame of poverty and the small, necessary dignities that keep people going. It is heartbreakingly good on childhood and Shuggie’s growing sense of his otherness, of not being the same as the other boys on the estate. As he grows, and Agnes sinks, there’s a sense of inevitability to the story, but this does not make it predictable; rather the reader is gripped, hoping desperately that the boy and his mother free themselves from the twin traps of poverty and alcoholism.

That the book is never dismal or maudlin, notwithstanding its subject matter, is down to the buoyant life of its two principal characters, the heart and humanity with which they are described. A first novel of rare and lasting beauty.

£8.36 (£8.99 RRP) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

More Stories
Queen to borrow PM’s plane as her passenger jets face being cut in defence spending review