Another one bites the dust, one may say. For this is another 2020 Christmas gift. This time from my Bigger Half. He usually makes a thing of the trip to find gifts for me, but this year because of the pandemic he has been condemned to the online options. On a gut feeling, he picked Shuggie Bains, in a beautiful hardback edition. The book won the 2020 Booker, so he took that for a good omen. My feeling towards the Booker winners are more mixed, some of them I thoroughly enjoyed, but many feel for me overly complex in terms of form and purposely inaccessible. I get the ‘form over content’ feeling sometimes, so I am a bit more hesitant to pick one.
As it happens right before Christmas I was writing a text for Daily Art Magazine about photography books and one of those listed was Glasgow by Raymond Depardon. Which broadly coincides with Shuggie in terms of time and place.
This book is a story about Agnes Bain and her children, Shuggie being one of them. We are in the 1980s and early 1990s in Glasgow and the world is not a nice place. Agnes and her partner live with her parents and three children. She always wanted something miraculous and glamorous in her life, but it didn’t pan out this way. Life is small, boring, tough, and ugly. So Agnes drinks to get some respite from reality. And the drinking gets uglier by the day.
All of this of course impacts her children, and their perspective is also described. It is a book about poverty and pathology, written in utmost detail, with a slow and deliberate pace. It makes us watch. It makes us understand. At least that is what I gathered from the first 70 pages.
I just could not finish it. It is by far one of the most depressing books I ever read. Depressing not because it makes you cry, but because of its slow and relentless examination of poverty, hopelessness, failure, and misery. There is no way out, there is no happy end (or at least it doesn’t look like there will be), there’s no redemption, no forgiveness. There’s even no pathos, it is all so down to earth plain it is painful.
Probably the second week of the third lockdown was not the best time to even attempt this book. Also, I was never a fan of this deep vivisection of poverty. Not because I don’t care, I just have enough imagination not to have it shoved in my face. I have the same thing with books about WWII atrocities. That said I cannot say it is a bad book, it is not. I really enjoyed the language and prose. I am sure that those feelings of hopelessness and despair are exactly those that Stuart wanted to evoke in readers. There is mastery in this book, I’m just not the right audience for it.
So if you feel your world is too cheerful and you need to tone it down a notch, this may be the perfect thing for you. I sadly didn’t last.
Photo by Raymond Depardon, Glasgow, 1980