by Douglas Stuart
Grove Press. 448 pages, $17.
WINNER of the U.K.’s Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award in America, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is perhaps the bleakest great novel to appear in a long time. It is the bleakest, most shocking, and most harrowing account of a childhood I’ve ever read, and this includes anything by Dickens. At the end of thirteen pages, the fifteen-year-old Shuggie is already selling himself to men for money. Barely thirty pages later, he narrates the way his mother tried to set the house around them on fire with him in her arms. And there are still nearly 400 pages to go. Given all this horror, it may be appropriate to ask (and many have), how much is too much? That Shuggie Bain is a literary triumph is a testament to the author’s skill at keeping us from closing the book in despair.
Dale Boyer’s most recent book is Justin and the Magic Stone. His new poetry collection, Columbus in the New World, is forthcoming.