Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
by Natalie Joyce
Published in February 2020, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart continues to be a bestseller in the charts after being awarded the 2020 Booker Prize, and made Stuart the second Scottish writer to win this prize after James Kelman in 1994. Shuggie Bain is Stuart’s debut novel. It follows Shuggie, a young working-class boy growing up in Glasgow during the Thatcher era with his troubled alcoholic mother, Agnes.
The novel begins in the early 1990s, with teenage Shuggie living alone in a dirty bedsit, working at a grimy deli counter and dreaming of going to college for hairdressing. The novel then goes back a decade, where we see Shuggie growing up in a crowded flat with his grandparents, siblings and parents. His mother is unsatisfied with life: desiring a life of substance and glamour, she takes to drinking herself numb. Shuggie, an effeminate and gentle boy, struggles at school and on the estate with not fitting in, and often misses class to care for his mother after she drinks. Agnes and Shuggie have a complex but strong bond, with Agnes adoring her son. But her self-destructive impulses eat away at their relationship.
From the poverty endured by its people to the struggles of Shuggie’s sense of otherness, this highly political novel is a testament to the impact of Thatcherism on Glaswegian society. Showing a world which is rarely portrayed in fiction, this is bleak story illustrating the relationship between a child and their alcoholic parent, but one which must be told. Stuart’s debut is one of lasting beauty: Shuggie Bain tells an unforgettable story in which Shuggie’s resilience and humanity prevails.
Bridgerton: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
by Emma Ferguson
As one of the biggest new releases on Netflix, it is no surprise that the original inspiration for the Bridgerton series has climbed up the charts. Bridgerton: The Duke and I is the first in Julia Quinn’s series which follows a Regency family during the social season as the eldest daughter, Daphne, seeks out a marriage match. Their society (known as the Ton) is rife with gossip, spread by the mysterious columnist Lady Whistledown who dares to name her subjects as she reveals their scandals and secrets. Aptly described as Pride and Prejudice meets Gossip Girl, this book is both raunchy and romantic, dramatic and demure.
When Daphne is introduced to her eldest brother’s old friend - Simon, the Duke of Hastings - she is quickly enchanted by him. Whilst her brother forbids their courtship, Simon also reveals that he shall never marry, instead proposing a devious plan to Daphne that will benefit both parties as the social season progresses. Of course, they cannot last as just friends, with both seeing the other as simply irresistible. But Simon’s tortured past haunts him, with the desire to get revenge on his stern late father overpowering his love for Daphne time and time again.
While the storyline may be ultimately predictable, it is still an enjoyable read for those who are fans of period romances. A controversial rape scene in both the book and the series has kickstarted important discussions on consent, and it is relieving to see a change in reception 20 years after the book’s release. With a second series destined for Netflix, this likely isn’t the last time we will see Julia Quinn in the charts.
Weather by Jenny Offill
by Verity Stuart
It is quite promising that Jenny Offill's experimental and critically acclaimed novel, Weather, is still high in the charts the week that Donald Trump has left office and President Biden has been inaugurated. Released less than a year ago in February 2020, and written during Trump's ascension to power, Weather has had an intriguing life-cycle as a book about climate change, family and the choices we make against the backdrop of political turbulence.
Weather is a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis. Lizzie, our librarian protagonist, is dealing with familial uncertainty whilst engaging with radical political views as she answers the increasingly anxious mail for her friend's podcast. Offill's writing style is individual, and undoubtedly not for everyone. But, as she probes necessary questions about the role we play in the climate crisis, her scope is surely ambitious. The style consists of fragmentary anecdotes with deep personal reflection alongside menial, everyday tasks and political upheaval. Despite a narrator that reflects on her lack of control in everyday life, Offill's style is admirably controlled.
Receiving numerous awards and being nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction, Weather is an undeniable critical success and, perhaps, a year after it's publication, wider audiences are connecting with its topical themes. While it was not written or published during pandemic, the themes of social isolation remain striking. It will surely go down in history as one of the troubled and, at times, devastating reflections on the Trump administration, a reminder of the neoliberal vacillation that unnerved the middle-class.