I’d heard just one thing about Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain when it won the 2020 Booker Prize: that agents had rejected the manuscript more than 30 times before it was picked up for publication. And that is perhaps what shaped my expectation of the novel more than anything. I expected that, upon reading it, I would immediately know why it had been rejected—maybe a radical form and style, like Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other; or maybe a surprising voice and tone, like Anna Burns’ The Milkman (both, I reasoned, were previous Booker Prize winners, so it would seem appropriate that yet another wonderful surprise was in store for me).
And yet, I found very little to be utterly surprising about Shuggie Bain. Sure, there is a little bit of tricky dialect, but nothing we haven’t seen that before in plenty of novels. There are no extraordinary characters—most of us have known someone struggling with addiction, like Agnes, or socially rejected, like Shuggie. And there are no shocking, unforeseeable plot twists—no untimely deaths, no knight in shining armor, this is not Gone Girl. In fact, perhaps the most unbelievable thing about Shuggie Bain is how incredibly quotidian (and yes, bleak) both the characters and the plot remain from start to finish.
A lot of people are going to protest the use of the word “quotidian” with regard to Shuggie’s life. Certainly, it should not be considered normal to live in poverty, to watch loved ones struggle through addiction, to experience neglect or abuse. And yet, Shuggie Bain presents these things with such regularity and predictability—so convincingly—that quotidian is exactly the word that comes to mind. Of course, there were times during the story when I was asking myself are there any men in this novel that are not physically or sexually abusive? Are there any children who are well-fed? Any women not suffering from addiction and debt? But at the same time, I understood that this is the way things were for Shuggie, this was his quotidian experience. From early on, as readers we know what Agnes’s addiction will lead to, we know how the neighbor kids are likely to treat Shuggie, we know his father won’t ever be the hero.
And yet, despite the missing element of surprise and the many questions I had while reading, I would argue that Shuggie Bain is an incredible novel precisely because I was fully invested in the banality of Shuggies life. I believe in these characters, and cared deeply about the unsurprising lives they led. They are familiar, yes, but never boring. And no, the plot is not surprising, but (perhaps because I felt that I knew the characters so well) I nevertheless read desperately, hoping for a turn for the better. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Stuart’s prose was elegant and natural. So while this isn’t a book I would recommend to many—to my mother, for example, who needs a happy ending, or my sister, who needs a roller coaster ride—it is a book that I consider truly brilliant in its honest depiction of the bleak realities of addiction and a family’s struggle.