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A few years ago I wrote here about Kerry Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My MaI described it as “squirm inducing”  and said “The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it.”

The same could be said for Douglas Stuart’s debut, Shuggie Bain. It’s the devastating story of Hugh, nicknamed Shuggie, who is growing up wit an alcoholic mother in public housing in Glasgow in the 1980s. There are a few glimmers of hope. But, having just read Peggy Orenstein’s Atlantic article, “The Miseducation of the American Boy: Why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity,” I found the toxic masculinity in Shuggie Bain hard to face. It was a reminder that as bad as we think things are now, they’ve been worse.

Even the teachers and coaches are mean to Shuggie. None of the other mothers look after him. No one does. I cringed through the depictions of sexual abuse, misogyny, homophobia, dysfunction, violence, and neglect. In fact at one point I thought “Why am I reading this?”

But, as with Hudson’s book, I read it to understand. To walk in someone else’s shoes, as I said when I read Tony Hogan. And to feel, in the end, happy that each of the three Bain kids gets out. In their way, the siblings love each other. And Shuggie is not entirely alone; Leanne, his lone friend, is a character I would love to see more of.

While Shuggie Bain is, as several reviewers note, a book about love, resilience, and strength, you only get to that after reading through a great deal of pain and suffering. Not for the faint hearted. But Shuggie is a character well worth knowing.

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