Mungo lives on a housing estate in Glasgow in the early 90s, looked after by his older sister Jodie and facing pressure from his thuggish older brother Hamish to get involved in his life of violence. Their mother Maureen is absent having taken up with a new man, leaving Mungo at the mercy of his siblings as a war brews on the housing estate between the Protestants and the Catholics. Directionless and with no ambition in life, Mungo’s eyes are opened when he meets James, a Catholic boy on the other side of the war Hamish is leading. As he starts to understand his sexuality, Mungo has to keep his fledgling relationship a secret from everyone.
‘Young Mungo’ is the second book from Douglas Stuart, who won the Booker Prize in 2020 for his debut novel ‘Shuggie Bain’. Having enjoyed such huge success with that novel, Stuart must have been feeling the pressure when it came to following it up. ‘Young Mungo’ takes some similar themes from its predecessor and is a dark and at times difficult book to read. Set against the backdrop of poverty in early 1990s Glasgow, Stuart’s story is one that is incredibly bleak but not completely without hope as we see the world through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Mungo.
Stuart tells his story over two timelines – the events leading up to Mungo’s relationship being discovered and the fishing trip he’s forced on by his mother with two men from her AA group. At first, I found this narrative device a little difficult to get into and that in turn made it feel like a book I had to work fairly hard to get into. It’s unclear initially why Mungo is on a fishing trip with men he doesn’t know and throughout the book, the narrative jumps between the two timelines, slowly revealing the events that led up to the bizarre and unnerving decision by Maureen to send him away.
I’m glad I persevered though because by the time I was a third into the book, I was hooked and really rooting for Mungo to find the happiness and peace he so craved. Once he meets James and the sparks begin to fly, the story really gets going and while you’re happy Mungo has found someone he can be himself with, you feel his fear that he might be discovered and punished. James seems a gentle soul, for the most part, who looks after pigeons in his ‘doocot’ and enlists Mungo’s help. That friendship becomes the most important thing in Mungo’s life and for the first time, he’s seen as a person with qualities rather than a nuisance who likely has undiagnosed tourettes.
Stuart also starts to really explore the supporting characters in the novel too. Mungo’s sister Jodie is having an affair with a teacher and dreams of escaping her life and going to university, while Hamish spends his days committing acts of violence and preparing his gang to fight the Catholics. Jodie tries to be a mother figure to Mungo but even her guidance can’t save him from the expectations of Hamish, who is determined to form Mungo in his own image.
We get to know some of the characters from the housing estate too including Chickee, an older gay man who lives alone with his dog and is a source of ridicule for most of the other inhabitants. His unexpected connection with Mungo provides some of the book’s most engaging moments. Perhaps the most complex character is Maureen – also known as Mo-Maw – Mungo’s wayward alcoholic mother who thinks of herself first and her children when she absolutely has to. Mungo’s relationship with his mother is a very complicated one as he gives her devotion she hasn’t earned and she treats him like a doormat.
The book’s second timeline, detailing Mungo’s fishing trip with older men Gallowgate and St Christopher, provides some of the most harrowing moments in the book. If you’re not already alarmed that a mother could send her son away with two men she barely knows, you’ll be shocked at the events that transpire and the impact that has on Mungo, most likely for the rest of his life.
‘Young Mungo’ may get off to a slow start but Stuart delivers an unflinching exploration of a young boy who is trapped in a very toxic situation with no understanding of how to get out of it. The book will make you laugh, feel very deeply and probably cry at points, but Mungo’s eternal optimism that he can change his life is inspiring. ‘Young Mungo’ may not be the easiest read but it’s one that will feel rewarding once you get to the final pages.
Published by: Picador Release date: 14th April 2022 Buy ‘Young Mungo’ now