Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

douglas stuart shuggie bain
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain

Agnes had so many hopes for her life. Her first husband was simply a disappointment, too well-behaved, too boring. With Shug Bain things could be different. But soon she wakes up still in her childhood room with her parents, aged 39 and mother of three kids. Shug promises a better life and rents them a home in a run-down public housing area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Yet, Shug does not really move in with his family, he is driving his taxi more and more often and spends his free time with other women. Soon enough, Agnes finds comfort in alcohol, her new neighbourhood is the perfect place to drown your thoughts and worries in cans of beer. Shuggie’s older brother Leek and his sister Catherine can distance themselves from their always intoxicated mother, yet, Shuggie is too young and for years, he hopes that one days, Agnes will be sober and they will have a life like any normal family.

Douglas Stuart’s novel is really heart-wrenching. You follow Shuggie’s childhood in the 1980s, a time when life was hard for many working class families who often did not know how to make ends meet which drove many fathers and mothers to alcohol. Shuggie’s love for his mother is unconditional, he is too young to understand the mechanisms behind her addiction and to see what it does not only to her but also to him. It would be too easy to blame Agnes for the misery she brings to herself and her son, she too is a victim of the time she lives in and the society that surrounds her. Industrial times are over in Scotland and the formerly working class turn into a new underclass.

It is not the plot that stands out in this novel, actually, all that happens is a downward spiral of alcoholism and decay that leads to the necessary end one would expect. Much more interesting are the two main characters, mother and son, and their development throughout the novel. Agnes tries to preserve her pride, to be the glamorous and beautiful woman she has once been and who has always attracted men even when times get tough. She keeps her chin up as long as she can – at least when she happens to be sober.

Already at a young age Shuggie has to learn that life will not offer him much. His family’s poverty and his mother’s addiction would be enough challenge in life. However, the older he gets, the more unsure he becomes about who he actually is. As a young boy, he prefers playing with girls’ toys and later he does not really develop an interest in girls either which makes him an easy target of bullying. No matter how deep his mother sinks, he always hopes for better days, days with his father, days without hunger. He is good at observing and even better at doing what is expected of him. He learns quickly how to behave around the different men in their home, how to hide his life from the outside world. In Leanne, he finally finds somebody who can understand him because she herself leads exactly the same life. They only long to be normal, yet, a normal life is not something that their childhood has been destined to.

Quite often you forget how young Shuggie is, his life is miserable but he has perfectly adapted to the circumstances. Douglas Stuart provides insight in a highly dysfunctional family where you can nevertheless find love and affection. It is clear that there is no escape from this life which makes it totally depressing. Somehow, the novel reminds me of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas with the only difference of being set in the 1980s and shown from a female perspective. Agnes is not the angry young woman; she is the desperate middle-aged mother whose dreams are over and who provides only one example to her son: do not expect anything from life or anybody.

An emotionally challenging novel due to its unforgiving realism.

Liz Moore – Long Bright River

liz-moore-long-bright-river
Liz Moore – Long Bright River

Two sisters who could hardly differ more. Mickey has always been the serious, more diligent one who went to school eagerly and was dreaming of a better life than the one they had at their not very loving grandmother’s. Kacey, eighteen months her junior, has always been the wilder, more adventurous girl who early pushed against the boundaries. Now, as grown-ups, they find themselves on opposing sides: Mickey has become a cop with the Philadelphia police, Kacey is highly addicted and working on the street. Mickey always has an eye on her younger sister even though they haven’t been talking for years. When several young and vulnerable women are killed, Mickey is highly alarmed since she hasn’t seen Kacey for several weeks.

Liz Moore‘s novel is a brilliant combination of a mystery novel with the search for a serial killer and a very sad story about a dysfunctional family where problems are handed from one generation to the next and where an escape is not really possible not matter how hard you try. Even though it looks as if there were clear sides, the good sister Mickey and the bad sister Kacey, you realise soon that life isn‘t that easy and that both women are more like different and changing shades of grey.

Mickey is a great protagonist in so far as she has a lot of interesting traits to offer. On the one hand, she is the hard working single mom who only wants the best for her son and constantly fears that she cannot live up to her own expectations. As a policewoman, too, she seems to do a great job, her family history helping her to understand the situation of the less favoured by life and those on the streets. That she suffers from constant misogyny in the forces does not really astonish. Yet, there are also other sides of the young women which only slowly unfold and show that there are a lot of lies she has been told by the people around her, but also lies that she told herself to shape the things in the way she wants to see them.

The mystery parts about the serial killer and the search for the sister are full of suspense and have some unexpected twists and turns to offer. What struck me most was the feeling that a lot of what Moore narrates is actually very sad, none of the characters has much to look forward to in their life and all seems but too authentic. A novel which provides entertainment but also much to ponder about after the last page thus something not to be missed.

Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

johannes-lichtman-such-good-work
Johannes Lichtman – Such Good Work

After losing his teaching job at a college because of his very peculiar assignments, Jonas Anderson moves to Sweden to change perspective and to have a fresh start. Even though he is some years older than the students there, he socialises with them easily and leads the life he had in his early 20s. After the break-up with his German girlfriend, he moves from Lund to Malmö, the town where 2015 masses of immigrants from the Middle East arrived. Seeing the hottest political topic in front of his own door, Jonas decides to get active and to volunteer in the work with the migrants, too. He soon realises that all that is meant to be supportive and good, doesn’t necessarily turn out to be such a good idea in the end.

Johannes Lichtman’s novel isn’t easy to sum up or to describe since his protagonist goes through tremendous changes throughout the novel which also affect the plot and the tone a lot. I really enjoyed the first part a lot when we meet Jonas trying to be a creative writing teacher. The tone here is refreshing and the character’s naiveté makes him sympathetic and likeable. With moving to Sweden and becoming a stranger and outsider, his role changes, yet, he still needs more time until he actually grows up and does something meaningful with his life.

The last part, his work with the unaccompanied minors, was for me personally the most interesting because I could empathise with him easily. Having myself worked with those youths when they came to Germany in 2015 and 2016, I went through the same emotions that Jonas went through. And I had to do exactly the same learning process: you want to help and you have good ideas, but actually they sometimes go past the needs of the refugees. The struggle between the news where all the immigrants were treated as a homogeneous mass and where the focus was put on the danger that came with them, and the everyday experiences with real people made it often hard to cope with the situation. In this respect, Lichtman did a great job because he depicted reality as it was back then.

All in all, a novel that addresses so many different topics with a lively and highly likeable style of writing, a great read not to be missed.

Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived

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Katharine Smyth – All the Lives We Ever Lived. Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

The death of her father has left Katharine pondering about her life and the people playing major roles in it. Amongst them is not only her family but also Virginia Woolf whose works deeply impressed her when she was a student at Oxford. The parallels between “To the Lighthouse” and her own life are stunning, especially when it comes to the impact that places have on the people. It is her family’s summer house in Rhode Island that first and foremost underlines this impression. Re-reading Virginia Woolf gives her the opportunity to understand her grief as well as her family relationships and to finally cope with her father’s passing.

Katharine Smyth makes it easy for the reader to follow her thoughts. Even though it is some years since I last read “To the Lighthouse”, I could effortlessly find my way back into the novel and see the thread that Smyth also saw. I found it an interesting approach for a memoir or biography and I liked it a lot.

There are two major aspects that I’d like to mention. First of all, Katharine Smyth cleverly shows how literature can help to overcome hard situations and to find solace in reading. It has been a concept since the ancient times, the classic Greek drama with its purgatory function and the possibility of a katharsis which helps you to sort out your feelings and opens the way to go on in life. Second, I also appreciated the author’s frankness. It is certainly not easy to write about the own father’s addiction and his slow deterioration, yet, the process of writing might have helped her, too, and embellishing things would have been counterproductive here.

An interesting memoir which was also beautifully written that made me think about which novel I would pick as a parallel to my own life.