Beyond the kilts and whiskey, its Celtic folklore embellishing mystery, Scotland reveals a much less poetic side. Irvine Welsh with notably Trainspotting (adapted for the cinema by Danny Boyle) had portrayed it with a punk earthiness. Slices of the life of Edinburgh junkies narrated by heroin-laden male voices made up this haggard face of the Scottish nation in the Thatcher era. But where were the women? Same era, same working class … Shuggie Bath repairs the omission: this first novel which earned its author, Douglas Stuart, the Man Booker Prize 2020 plunges us into the Glasgow of the 1980s, devastated by deindustrialisation, with the beating heart of the story the relationship between a mother and her son .
From a poor Catholic background, Agnes dreams of an existence greater than the cramped daily life that she refuses to identify with life. First, she does what she wants, that is to say, to her heart: against parental advice, she decides to marry this Protestant seducer of Shug Bain, a penniless taxi driver. . With her elders, Catherine and Leek, born to another father, and the youngest, Shug junior, Shuggie says, she can’t make ends meet. Back to square one. Agnes goes to live with her parents with husband and children. The formidable love affair with her don Juan parpaillot turns sour. Agnes is dying of jealousy, she waits for Shug and drinks. Then drink without waiting. In truth, alcohol was there before, only the beer cans that she hides in her big handbag console her for a reality that never keeps its promises … Agnes puts on her beautiful velvet dress, she is made for dancing. As she is alone, she makes her darling little Shuggie dance and it is the drunkenness that makes her head spin and forget her cigarette that sets on fire. Shug gets home in time. Tragedy is averted, but not the ashes. He moves the family to an even poorer part of town. It’s a new beginning without him.
Shuggie takes over. The grown-ups, for their part, have let down the rescue of their self-destructive mother, each one escaping as he or she can, Leek by the drawing and Catherine by literally taking the tangent. The eponymous hero of the book whose pages are the learning novel does not give up and wants to save Agnes. But has love ever saved anyone? When the desire arises in his house, Shuggie realizes that he is not “normal” – a delicate hair in the soup of the surrounding virilism. And the portrait of a proletarian woman to be duplicated in search of the boy’s identity. It is with a modest lyricism and a romantic vitality such as rarely breathes on this side of the Channel, or rather the Atlantic (the native Glasgow author lives in New York today), that Shuggie Bath stages in a setting of postindustrial dereliction a choreography of bruised souls. This powerful operatic work, mixing the vernacular and the literary, and served by superbly embodied voices, teaches us a beautiful lesson in love and resilience (this novel that Douglas Stuart dedicated to his mother did not find until 44e sending!), taking us to a beyond of failure and misery. But not emotion. Gone is talent.
Shuggie Bain Translated from English by Charles Bonnot
Edition: 10,000 copies.
Price: € 23.90; 496 pages
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Douglas Stuart, “Shuggie Bain” (Globe): Glasgow calling