Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Douglas Stuart’s first book – Shuggie Bain – burst on the literary scene in 2020 and later that year was awarded the Booker Prize and deservedly so.  The novel chronicles the life of Shuggie, a teenager in 1980s Glasgow, and explores with scathing honesty themes of addiction, sexuality and love.

Just two years later, Douglas Stuart’s new novel mines similar territory although it is set a little later in post-Thatcher Glasgow.  In the 1990s, Glasgow is a city riven by poverty and class and religious sectarianism.   The eponymous protagonist [named after St Mungo the reputed founder of Glasgow] is fifteen and the third child of alcoholic Mo-Maw Hamilton [or Maureen].  His eighteen-year-old brother Hamish – or, as he prefers to be called, Ha-Ha – is a thug, a hardman, and runs a ‘neat, ambitious little army’ [45] of ‘Billies’; his sister Jodie is intelligent and wants to flee the tenements of Glasgow via a place at the university.  Mungo is a ‘rare sort of handsome’ but his ‘sweetness unsettled other boys’ [29].  While Hamish and Jodie have established their emotional distance from Mo-Maw, Mungo was left to ‘find the last scraps of good in [her]’ [107],

The novel is structured with two alternating narratives – set a few months apart.  The first and the longer explores the day-to-day life of Mungo, his family and the other residents of the tenements in which he lives.  In his meanderings around the tenements, Mungo meets by chance James – a little older than Mungo and as much a loner as he is.  A friendship slowly develops between the boys and over time deepens into love and together they plan their escape from Glasgow.  However, one of the difficulties they face is that Mungo is protestant and James is Catholic.

The second narrative arc chronicles a fishing trip into the Highlands taken by Mungo in the company of two men, nicknamed Callowgate and St Christopher, whom Mo-Maw met at an AA meeting.  The purpose of the trip was to expose Mungo to the good influences of men while engaged in the manly pursuits of fishing and camping.  It is of no consequence to Mo-Maw that, although she has only just met these men, she is prepared to send her son camping with them.  On the trip, it is revealed that the men met in prison to where they had been sentenced for similar offences – and their purpose in agreeing to Mo-Maw’s request of them is far from altruistic.

As the novel progresses, the distance between the two narrative arcs narrows and, suddenly, they intersect with an explosion of violence.  The nature of the relationship between Mungo and James is laid bare and Hamish brings it to an end in the only way he knows.  The reader also discovers the reason behind Mo-Maw’s urgency in sending Mungo on the ill-fated trip.

In common with Shuggie in the previous novel, Mungo is struggling with his sexuality in a harsh brutal environment where homosexual is a pejorative term and incompatible with manliness and strength, and economic and emotional poverty is rampant.  To foresee his future if he ‘came out’, Mungo only needs to look at one of his fellow tenants in his building – ‘Poor-Wee-Chickie’ Calhoun – who is reminded daily of ‘his low place, sub-human, sub-them’ [140] by the idle Protestant boys in the street.

The author has crafted a novel which explores, in unflinching language, life in the tenements of Glasgow with its family violence and neglect, sectarianism and poverty.  But towards the end of the novel, there is a vignette where Mungo when returning from the ill-fated fishing trip is offered a lift by a kind-hearted farmer.  He speaks of his four sons one of whom is ‘a wee bit artistic’ and says to Mungo ‘But would I be right in thinking ye are a wee bit artistic yourself?’ [377].  While Mungo is unable to articulate what this means, he does sense that it is some validation of his nature.

Young Mungo can be heart-wrenching to read in parts and there are a few passages which create a feeling of dread of what is to come.  The novel is beautifully written and, while the language can be raw and expressed in the vernacular, it is by any measure a brilliant second novel.  And Mungo is an engaging young man for whom the reader will want a better future.  Young Mungo can comfortably take its place alongside Shuggie Bain.

Young Mungo

[2022]

by Douglas Stuart

Pan Macmillan

ISBN 978 152906 877 1

$32.99; 390pp

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