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A terrible beauty: Review of ‘Shuggie Bain’ and ‘Real Life’

Still life: Tom Walton’s oil, ‘Modern Family’.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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Early in Shuggie Bain, Scottish-American designer Douglas Stuart’s Booker-shortlisted debut, there is a scene that is this tender, frightening, hopeful and somehow profoundly sad novel in microcosm.

The scene begins with 39-year-old Agnes Bain dancing with her five-year-old son (the eponymous Shuggie) in the Glasgow tenement flat they share with her parents, her two teenage children, and her philandering husband. “When she laughed, he danced harder... The happier she looked, the harder he wanted to spin and flail... Agnes threw her head back in peals of laughter, and the sadness was gone from her eyes.”

Something contaminated

They are “breathless from laughing” when they hear the heavy tread of Shuggie’s father, Big Shug, who has stopped by for a cup of tea during a break from driving his taxi. In an instant, the atmosphere changes, “as though it was not Shug but the cold Campsie wind itself that had arrived.” Agnes hides the empty lager cans that litter the room and lights a cigarette. She sings along to a lugubrious song, “ her voice [cracking] with the poor me’s,” as she quite deliberately sets the cheap polyester curtains on fire.

A terrible beauty: Review of ‘Shuggie Bain’ and ‘Real Life’

As the room burns, mother and son cling to each other: “together they watched all this new beauty in silence.” Readers too will frequently find themselves contemplating all this beauty as the novel burns around them, as the lives of Agnes and Shuggie seem always on the brink of being reduced to cinders and ash.

A similar atmosphere of dreadful suspense — as if any moment one can go from dancing deliriously to setting one’s house on fire — pervades Real Life, Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted debut novel. Wallace, gay, black undergrad at a Midwestern university, lives a quiet, uneventful life, spending endless hours breeding nematodes. The largesse of American universities, flush with funding for biochemistry research, means that Wallace, unlike most students, doesn’t ever want for money. But when Wallace retrieves his “boxes of agar plates” from the incubator “the tranquil blue-green surface of the agar... was not so tranquil.”

Wallace’s ruined plates are the first indication that beneath the placid surface of his life something contaminated roils. Later that same evening, as Wallace gets into bed with a colleague, he “could have wept for the boy he’d been at seven or eight, when he was touched for the first time, neither tenderly nor fearing that the touch might do him harm.”

Water has an important role to play in Real Life. For instance, after sex with his colleague, Wallace fills himself to bursting with cold water, until he throws up, the vomit and reflux “churning and orange in the bowl”. Or the lake in his college town: of which he notes that there is “something slick in the water, something apart from the water itself, like a loose second skin swilling around under the surface.”

A terrible beauty: Review of ‘Shuggie Bain’ and ‘Real Life’

A terrible violence was done to Wallace, and it is both a part of him and apart from him, like that “loose second skin”. His race, too, for his white colleagues, contaminates the water. It is not spoken about but it inflects (or, if you like, colours) every interaction. And the “most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth... It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism... They are the fox in the henhouse.”

Enormous heart

Shuggie and Wallace share an intense wariness, a watchfulness that is the result of childhood poverty, of parents who failed them, of trauma that includes the forced outsiderness of being queer. Shuggie’s dearest wish is to keep his alcoholic mother together, alive, to bring a smile to her face. In a later scene reminiscent of the one in which Agnes sets the curtains on fire, Shuggie watches his mother ironing. She is pulling faces at him through the “hissing steam” and Shuggie, lying in “the close heat” of a three-bar fire, dreams of how “he never wanted this burning rain to end. How it would be better if they were stuck inside alone, where he could keep her safe forever.”

But whatever their efforts to save other people, it is self-preservation that Shuggie and Wallace grope towards, how to overcome the horror of what was (and continues to be) done to them, and how to find a path towards love. Real Life is appropriately self-conscious about its modernist antecedents — Wallace seeks out To The Lighthouse after a literature postgraduate tells him it is his favourite novel — while Shuggie Bain is part of a rich seam of contemporary Scottish working class writing.

Occasionally, Shuggie Bain, with its sentimentality and overwhelming squalor, can veer close to self-parody but is always pulled back from the brink by its enormous heart, by the enormous love that binds Shuggie to Agnes. Real Life is more enigmatic. Aptly for a novel in which water is practically a character, it is murky, slippery, its depths easy to underestimate.

If the Booker Prize is awarded to either of these novels on November 19, it will have been a vintage year.

Real Life; Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books, ₹599

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, Picador, ₹499

The reviewer is a Delhi-based editor and writer.

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