Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart: ‘He had so little to fear now’

It’s unlikely that readers won’t already know about Booker Prize-winning Douglas Stuart’s new novel. Young Mungo has been all over my Twitter timeline for months. Despite the usual reservations about second novels, I was champing at the bit for a copy then circled around it in the same way I did with Shuggie Bain, suspecting that it would be another heartbreaking read. Set in early ‘90s Glasgow, Stuart’s novel is about a young boy named by his mother after the patron saint of a city divided strictly along sectarian lines.

I saw him peeling a kiwi fruit in the staffroom the other week. So, up your arse with his voice-of-the-working-class nonsense  

Mo-Maw, as her children call her, comes and goes from the family home depending on whether there’s a man in her life and the state of her sobriety. Jodie is the middle child who’s taken on the mothering of Mungo, much to Mo-Maw’s resentment, bright and determined to forge a future for herself. Hamish is the firebrand, leader of the Dennistoun Billies, already a father at nineteen. Fifteen-year-old Mungo is his mother’s darling, soft-hearted and adoring of her, in need of toughening up as far as Hamish is concerned. When Mungo spots James with his pigeons, gentle and careful, a friendship begins which gradually becomes something else. Mungo is in dangerous territory in this homophobic neighbourhood where the local ‘bachelor’ is treated with at best derision, at worst violence, not to mention crossing the sectarian line. Jodie and Mungo manage the best they can, Jodie seduced by the promises of a teacher to help her get into university, Mungo longing for his mother and resisting Hamish’s demands to play his part with the Billies until he has no choice. When the brief idyll that Mungo and James have built is blown apart, Mo-Maw decides to make a man of Mungo, sending him off on a fishing trip with the worst possible companions.

Half-grown men fell to the ground clutching split skulls, the bravest warriors screaming for their mammies  

Young Mungo is written with the same wit, compassion and tenderness that made Shuggie Bain such a striking and affecting novel. There are some similarities – young gay son who adores his alcoholic vain mother – but Stuart extends his themes to include a sectarianism almost as vicious as Belfast’s. The social observation is as keen as it was in his first novel, if anything more acute for being dialled back a little in its depiction, and the descriptions of a countryside Mungo has never seen before are beautiful. As with his first novel, Stuart’s characterisation is sharp and convincing: Mungo is an endearing character, ‘all kindness and no common sense’, while Jodie is the sister with an acerbic tongue who always looks out for her younger brother. It’s an immersive, thoroughly absorbing novel, very dark at times. Best have the tissues handy; I chose to interpret the ending as hopeful perhaps because it was too heart wrenching to do otherwise.

Picador Books: London ‎ 9781529068764 400 pages (Hardback)

12 thoughts on “Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart: ‘He had so little to fear now’”

  1. Timely review Susan, just started this yesterday. Read half of your review before I had to stop so will return when I’ve finished. Difficult to write anything without using the word ‘immersive’. He uses the Glasgow landscape so well and there’s always a feeling of menace just around the corner. Wasn’t sure if he could replicate ‘Shuggie Bain’ but signs are good so far.

  2. This sounds like it could break your heart. Like you I’ll always cling onto a sliver of hope if it’s there! I nearly started Shuggie Bain last week – it’s definitely at the top of the pile.

  3. I still haven’t read Shuggie Bain, though I do have a copy on my very high tbr. It seems that this author can’t help but pull at the heartstrings. This story sounds deeply affecting.

  4. Sadly, Shuggie Bain defeated me last year, despite my best intentions to get through it. While I loved the warmth and humanity in Shuggie’s character, I just found the story itself too distressing to read, especially the elements involving his mum. (I’m aware I’m something of an outlier on this as so may other readers have loved it, but that’s probably the way it goes sometimes. We can’t gel with everything, however much we’d like to.) This sounds like another heartbreaker, albeit very immersive and brilliantly done. So, I’ll definitely recommend it to fans of Shuggie, but maybe not everyone due to the darker elements in the story. 🙂

    1. I can understand why it might have proved too much, Jacqui, and you’re right, of course, we can’t expect to gel with everything we read. You’ll be safe in your recommendation of Young Mungo to Shuggie Bain fans.

      1. I didn’t read Shuggie and I’m kind of glad considering the comments about the similarities. I think this gave me a better undersanding of Mungo and his story and I didn’t have to compare it to Shuggies. Mungo’s story had me from page one. I couldn’t put it down and when I went to bed I couldn’t wait to sratr it the morning, I was finished by the end of the day. I guess I was waiting for something good to happen for Mungo but I was also afraid he wouldn’t make it back from his trip. It was all I could do to not jump to the end to find out. I was quite distressed with the ending,feeling like James was gone and there was no hope for a happy ending for the youths. It took me a few hours after finishing to let myself believe Mungo and James ended up together but I now think Hammish really did love his brother and gave him a chance to at least be happy with James by stepping up to throw the police off . I believe Mungo crossed the street and left with James much to the approval of Jodi who also played her part in their reunion.

        1. I chose an optimistic interpretation of the ending, too, and I’d agree with you about Hamish loving Mungo. It’s such a moving novel, very dark at times but poignant and tender.

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