Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart follows on from Stuart’s outstanding Booker Prize winning debut Shuggie Bain. Although the setting is very much the same – Glaswegian tenements, dysfunctional families, absent fathers and alcoholic mothers – the story feels different enough to engage even those who’ve read Shuggie Bain. A burgeoning love between Mungo and fellow loner James is at the core of this book, the moving tenderness of their relationship in stark contrast to the rough realities on the street and at home. In true Stuart style, characters and places rise from the page but I felt some of the pace and immediacy of his debut was missing in this book. Still a good read, but not the mind-blower that was Shuggie Bain.
We’re in post-Thatcher and pre-Blair Glasgow. Mungo, 17, is the youngest of three siblings. His brother Hamish terrorises the neighbourhood while his sister Jodie, hell-bent on escaping, works like a dog, inside and outside of school. Meanwhile, their mother Maureen, herself a victim of generations of poverty and neglect, spends her days drinking or chasing men and puts in the occasional guest appearance at home.
Mungo is a sensitive soul who fails ‘to see the difference between what someone said and what they truly meant’ with an endless capacity for forgiveness when it comes to his selfish mother. Between Mungo and James is no more than small field but also the gulf of religion. Protestants cannot be seen to fraternise with Catholics. Add rampant homophobia to that and things don’t look good for Mungo and James.
Young Mungo is darker, quieter and somewhat slower than Shuggie Bain. While the latter was very much autobiographical, Young Mungo is less so (as will be obvious when you read it). Perhaps that explains why some of the intimacy and immediacy is lost. Douglas is still a fabulous writer, though, and there are plenty of beautifully described moments and places in this book which makes it worth reading.
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart is published by Picador, 400 pages.
Read our review of Shuggie Bain, also by Douglas Stuart.