Food in Literature part 13

Part thirteen starts with Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. The novel won the Booker Prize in 2020. It is a masterpiece and should become a classic, that will be read a hundred years from now.

Shuggie Bain: Douglas Stuart

It tells the story of Shuggie, who is eight when the book begins in 1981 and his mother Agnes. They live in the most poverty stricken parts of Glasgow, where few of the men have work and communities are riven by sectarian bigotry. Mothers barely survive and only manage to feed their families from one benefit day to the next by becoming adept at levering the covers off TV and electricity meters. Shuggie's life is harder than most, because Agnes is an alcoholic and also because he is different from other children. He hates rough games and can't join in with the smutty sex talk that the children of his age are conditioned to take part in. Agnes may be ravaged by her addiction but she is also different from the other women in their neighbourhood because she's beautiful, she takes care over her appearance and her speech and when she's not on a bender, she keeps a spotless home. There's one beautiful scene, where she and Shuggie steal plants from a public verge and transform the barren plot outside their front door into a flowering garden.

Food features a lot in the book but mostly it's about the fight to stave off hunger, with what is cheapest to buy; white processed bread, frozen oven chips, tins of custard. However there is one scene where food becomes a symbol of a different way of life, one that is free from want.

Agnes has a steady boyfriend, Eugene. He's a kind man but he makes the huge mistake of thinking that he can persuade Agnes to become a controlled, social drinker. She's been sober for a long while but he has left her, after attending a party with her AA group members, that he finds unbearable. He can't understand alcoholism and can't accept the fact that it is is an illness that she can only hope to control, by total abstinence but will never be cured of. One night , after a long absence, he calls for her and takes her to the golf club for dinner. Agnes is not expecting this and she has never been any where like it before.

From her seat on the bus she would watch the Jaguars pull up , fancy cars, from fancy estates, far away from here. She would watch the smooth faced men take their golf clubs out of the car boots while their wives would stand by, with their small purses and low heels, wrapped in Scottish Woollen Mill jumpers.

The dining room of the golf club was simple but to Agnes it was the height of class. It was a big open room that faced a wall of glass doors that overlooked the green lawn of the eighteenth hole. The room was carpeted in thick paisley carpet the colour of gold and parsley, and the walls had panelling laid in to waist height and above this were photos of club members and famous patrons.

A young girl in a long tartan skirt led them to a seat in the back of the smoking section. Agnes almost died with shame when Eugene asked for a table nearer the glass doors and the lit fairway beyond. The girl only smiled and led them to a table closer to the front. As they sat down, Eugene said a loud hello to the tables on either side. The people politely nodded back."

Agnes struggles with the menu and makes a choice:

It had a fancy Gaelic name, but she recognized it as chicken. Agnes was only going to have this chicken and chips, but Eugene wouldn't let the waiter take the menus until she ordered a starter, a main and a desert. She would have liked to sit alone with the menu for days. She didn't know what all the things were , but to see it all suddenly laid out before her and to know she could have her pick of it made her feel light headed. It was like a Freemans catalogue only better. She ordered what she understood and then she sat there worrying about the cost…

Their prawn cocktail starters arrived. The ice cream bowl was lined with a slice of lettuce and frozen pink prawns that swam in a thick Marie Rose sauce. Around the edge of the glass were thick wedges of lemon. The prawns were still a little cold, not fully defrosted, which Eugene said wasn't very good of the place. Agnes didn't mind it, to her it tasted fresh, the ice a clean fresh stab against the sweet and tangy Marie Rose.

Eugene tries to persuade her that she's not like the AA crowd.

"Wi' me in your life, what would you need a drink problem for? Drink is only for they sick pitiful bastards…"

The waiter brought the main dishes. He wrapped his hands in a towel and gently slid the hot plates in front of the couple. Agnes looked first at her roasted chicken and then she cooed over Eugene's lamb and the boiled potatoes like a wean at Christmas.

However Eugene has a game plan. He is convinced that Agnes can be a social drinker. He orders a bottle of white wine.

Agnes is gripped with dread.

… the chicken that had looked golden and juicy now looked dry and dead in front of her. The waiter brought the bottle of wine. He made to pour some for Agnes and she didn't stop him. She remarked on how the wine was almost the light peach colour of the roses in her front garden. "You know, peach roses are meant to be the colour of sincerity, the colour of gratitude."

She desperately tries to make conversation to take his and her mind away from alcohol but with not much success.

Agnes pushed her fat potatoes under the half eaten carcass. The waiter cleared the plates and brought the tiramisu out to the table. Eugene drank the bottle of white down as her glass of peach coloured wine sat untouched, getting warmer.

"I don't think I could eat another bite." She was playing idly with the tiramisu. "It's lovely though. It's the best custard I've ever had."

The evening, that promised to be so wonderful, is spoiled. She starts to drink and can't stop and Eugene gives up on her for ever.

At the end of the book Shuggie is a teenager and has made a friend, Leanne, whose mother is also an alcoholic and who is living on the streets. Leanne regularly goes looking for her, with a bag of clean underclothes and some food. Shuggie goes along to support her and there is an appalling but extremely moving scene where he buys a box of strawberry tarts from a stall on Glasgow station as a treat for Leanne, who saves one to give to her mother.

Shuggie's story is an unflinching and dreadful account of addiction and deprivation, but it is also a deeply moving and wonderfully observed novel about perseverance, love and devotion.

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