Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 April 2022 from Picador
My thanks to Picador for an early copy for review
Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in a hyper-masculine world. They are caught between two of Glasgow’s housing estates where young working-class men divide themselves along sectarian lines, and fight territorial battles for the sake of reputation. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the doocot that James has built for his prize racing pigeons. As they begin to fall in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo must work hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.
But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland, with two strange men behind whose drunken banter lie murky pasts, he needs to summon all his inner strength and courage to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.
Imbuing the everyday world of its characters with rich lyricism, Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo is a gripping and revealing story about the meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.
There is much in Douglas Stuart’s new book that will remind you of Shuggie Bain. Mungo is a young lad, just 15 years old, wanting only his mother’s love. But his mother is an alcoholic and he never knew his dad. Now his mother is away for days, weeks sometimes, in search of, or trying to hold onto, a new man. She denies the existence of her three children lest they scare off a new squeeze and Mungo is largely brought up by his sister, Jodie.
Jodie is a bright young woman with an academic future in front of her, if only she can escape her upbringing. For the moment, though, she is stuck being a surrogate mum to Mungo and lost in a horrible cycle of trying to please an older authority figure who only wants to take advantage of her.
Hamish is the eldest child. Already lost to the ways of sectarian gang violence, he is trying to teach Mungo to be street wise – and of course to hate Catholics; for that is one of the main purposes of being in a street gang in this part of sectarian Glasgow; the other being the need to take every opportunity to root out homosexuality wherever it is perceived.
Alcoholism, domestic abuse, poverty and above all the toxicity of what it means to be a big man in this city all play a part in making these people who they are. Young Mungo is a heart-breaking story. It is the story of the Montagues and the Capulets set in amongst the East End tenements of Glasgow.
Set across two timelines, the immediate past last January and the present day in May, we meet neighbours who know better than to interfere, but still try their best. We also meet some of the worst of humanity in two men who Mungo will never be able to forget as his mother, Mo-Maw, abandons him to them in the hope that he can learn ‘manly pursuits’ like fishing. Young Mungo is an often bleak and harrowing tale of the loss of innocence and the brutality of male violence and female neglect. It is also a beautiful story of the flourishing of young love against all the odds.
There’s something inherently beautiful in Stuart’s rich imagery and fabulous prose which sets this book firmly apart from others. The writing contrasts with the harshest of the violence and offers a richness that promises more than the abject miserableness of what we are reading. I found that a rare and wonderful thing.
So we have hope; hope in this love among the doocots, that we have to cling on to if the possibility of love prevailing is to stay with us. At its heart, Young Mungo is that most ancient of stories, a story of love against all the odds, made more poignant by the marked differences we see between love with sex and sex without love. There are no easy answers, but Douglas Stuarts, raw, brutal, unflinching story is a real heart-breaker and this character-driven novel is a beautifully wrought work with the merest glimmer of hope to cling on to.
Douglas Stuart was born and raised in Glasgow. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, he moved to New York, where he began a career in fashion design. Shuggie Bain, his first novel, won the Booker Prize and both ‘Debut of the Year’ and ‘Book of The Year’ at the British Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the US National Book Award for Fiction, among many other awards. His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker and his essay on gender, anxiety and class was published by Lit Hub. He divides his time between New York and Glasgow. Young Mungo is his second novel.
Photo © Sarah Blesener