The book club at Talking Tables is a tradition that has been running for several years now and it’s always been a great opportunity for the book lovers among us to get together, get reading and celebrate our love of literature. With so many great books out there, we’re often spoilt for choice and look to other book clubs for inspiration. This year we thought we’d repay the favour and share our thoughts with all of you.
This month’s book club choice was Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker prize winner Shuggie Bain. Set in Glasgow and its surrounding suburbs, the story follows the lives of Shuggie and his mother Agnes as they strive to find their respective places in the world. It’s both a coming-of-age tale and a deeply emotional story about the bond between a mother and son and the addiction that threatens to destroy them.
We unanimously loved it. After several weeks of split opinion, this was a book that got us all on the same page (pardon the pun). It’s a grey book in both its moral ambiguity and its frequently rain-swept and cold locales but so colourful in its humour and humanity that it feels shockingly vibrant and bright. This was probably the greatest surprise, having expected something relentlessly grim and instead finding a book with such heart and humour.
As we were zooming in for this week’s club, we chose to discuss a set of questions. (Open discussions can be a bit tricky when meeting virtually). One of our main topics of conversation was if we thought there was a villain in this story. However, in our reading of the book, we found that it was less interested in blaming any one individual and instead explored the destructive force of addiction and poverty in these characters’ lives.
Shug for example, Shuggie’ s womanising father, would be an easy person to ascribe blame. But even though his treatment of Agnes is horrendous and frequently abusive, he appears to be a product of his toxically masculine environment. I can’t say that any of us liked him much, but perhaps saw in his endless bedhopping and womanising another form of Agnes’s self-destructive tendencies. In the novel’s often grim depiction of day-to-day life you can see how everyone tries to escape in their own way. Agnes’s daughter leaves the country, her oldest son Leek disappears inside himself, Agnes drinks and Shug sleeps with everyone he can. Often their actions are hurtful, particularly to Shuggie, but they never seem to intentionally set out to hurt one another.
Another question that we discussed is whether or not Shuggie would have been any better adjusted had he been brought up in a more stable household? Shuggie’ s difference from those around him seems like it was always going to single him out in the context of a working-class macho background. Agnes, despite all her failings, teaches Shuggie to keep his head up, and in one wonderful scene to keep dancing despite the jeers and leers of the local children who see his difference as a reason to harass and hurt him.
There is little doubt that Shuggie has suffered a great deal of abuse and neglect in his upbringing but it’s hard to totally discard a lot of the valuable lessons Agnes, knowingly or not, has taught him along the way. Agnes herself is a marginalised person due not only to her alcoholism but also her refusal to conform to the limitations of her position in society. Her pride and appearance alienate her further within an already marginalised group. Shuggie too is no doubt destined to be othered. He, like Agnes, will never fit in albeit for different reasons. However, by the novel’s resolution, he has a level of autonomy and independence which seem to suggest he will be able to make his way despite his separation.
This season we’ve been looking at phenomenal women throughout history as inspiration for our products and ranges. We’ve looked at many great historical and artistic figures, but it was quite humbling to be reminded that sometimes what makes a woman phenomenal can be the ability to lose so much and still claw your way back, to hold your head high despite everyone looking down at you. It would be a stretch to call Agnes a role-model but whilst reading the book it’s hard not to feel proud when she fights and such sadness when she can’t find the strength to anymore. It’s a reminder that there are many women out there right now struggling with poverty and addiction and although their stories aren’t often told there’s so much to celebrate regardless of whether the battles they face are won or lost.
Overall, we found Shuggie Bain to be a wonderful read and a particularly good choice for any book club as it covers so many prescient issues and emotive topics.
For our next book we have chosen to read the Douglas Coupland novel “All Families are Psychotic.” We’ll let you know next month how we got on. Happy reading!
Talking Tables book club