Title: Young Mungo
Author: Douglas Stuart
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Length: 392 Pages
Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5 Stars
At a Glance: Young Mungo is a full-circle novel that places Mungo in harm’s way and then shows us how and why he got there. It is lyrical. It is steeped in despair. It is a brutal story—both physically and sexually violent. It is a desperately lonely story. It is heartbreakingly cruel. It is bittersweet. And yet . . . and yet, in the end, there is still a glimmer of hope for young Mungo.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Growing up in a housing estate in Glasgow, Mungo and James are born under different stars—Mungo a Protestant and James a Catholic—and they should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all. Yet against all odds, they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the pigeon dovecote that James has built for his prize racing birds.
As they fall in love, they dream of finding somewhere they belong, while Mungo works hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his big brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold. And when several months later Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland with two strange men whose drunken banter belies murky pasts, he will need to summon all his inner strength and courage to try to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.
Review: Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo is a book that contains multitudes. It is the story of a boy, Mungo Hamilton, growing up in the ’90s in Glasgow’s impoverished East End, living a hardscrabble life with his criminally violent brother, Hamish; a sister, Jodie, who dreams of escape; and a negligent, alcoholic mother, Mo-Maw, who will sell her body for a bottle of whisky and prefers to be introduced as their older sister. Maureen Buchanan had three children by the age of nineteen; at thirty-four, she merely uses them as an excuse for all her problems.
Her brother had all this love and forgiveness for an elfin wee woman who thought about herself first and last and in between. She was a terrible mother.
Mungo and his siblings are feral children. Their circumstances are wrought by their mother’s negligence and the East End’s rampant poverty. High unemployment has ravaged this part of the city, where the Protestants and Catholics are still fighting a war—although no one can seem to explain why—and yet Mungo is still, somehow, innocence personified despite the abject horrors he faces. But he is, by no means, a healthy and well-adjusted boy.
Mungo’s capacity for love frustrated her. His loving wasn’t selfless; he simply couldn’t help it. Mo-Maw needed so little and he produced too much, so that it all seemed a horrible waste. It was a harvest no one had seeded, and it blossomed from a vine no one had tended.
Mungo loves Mo-Maw and is attached to her in ways that anyone would define as unhealthy. He shoulders the responsibility, and the burden, of forgiving her for her many sins, much to Jodie’s frustration, and she has a tendency to use that against Mungo. This family weaponizes kindness in the cruelest of ways, while Mo-Maw and Jodie infantilize Mungo, which he exhibits outwardly. Mungo is a boy on the cusp of manhood who doesn’t want to be the ruthless brawler, thief, and drug dealer his brother wants him to be, nor can he continue to be the child he wishes to remain at times. All of Mungo’s many anxieties culminate in various tics and habitual self-harm. He is, at times, misery personified. The brutal anguish of this story peaks when Mo-Maw peddles Mungo off to two strangers so they can take him camping and fishing and teach him “masculine pursuits”.
There was nothing more shameful than being a poofter; powerless, soft as a woman.
When Mungo meets James Jamieson—a Catholic boy who should, by virtue of tradition, be the enemy—while spying on James at his dovecote, their friendship is sealed by Mungo’s fascination with the funny looking boy with “gappy teeth and sticky-out ears” whose smile is disarming. As much as this book plummets to the deepest depths of despair and scuffles among the dregs of the human condition, it also soars with the wonderment of falling in love for the first time; although Mungo and James can’t love each other where anyone else can see. James has his own idiosyncrasies, and a father who knows things he never wanted to know about his son. Mr. Jamieson doesn’t want to know anything more about his only son unless it’s that he’s found a girl and gotten her good and pregnant. Misogyny and homophobia are constant companions in the liminal state where Mungo and James exist.
Young Mungo is a full-circle novel that deliberately places Mungo in harm’s way and then shows us how and why he got there, and how he survived. It is lyrical. It is steeped in despair. It is a brutal story—both physically and sexually violent. It is a desperately lonely story. It is heartbreakingly cruel. It is bittersweet. And yet . . . and yet, in the end, there is still a glimmer of hope for young Mungo. This isn’t the first book I’ve read that paints a somber portrait of Glasgow and her people, but it is inarguably the best.
You can buy Young Mungo here:
[zilla_button url=”https://groveatlantic.com/book/young-mungo/” style=”black” size=”large” type=”round” target=”_blank”] Grove Atlantic [/zilla_button][zilla_button url=”https://books2read.com/Young-Mungo” style=”black” size=”large” type=”round” target=”_blank”] Amazon & Other eTailers [/zilla_button]