Books

Cover of book: Young Mungo

Douglas Stuart
Young Mungo

As with his Booker Prize-winning debut, Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart’s second novel, Young Mungo, describes a grim world. It’s populated by people who are crushed by political and economic decisions made by distant bureaucracies devoid of imagination or empathy.

In the shadow of Thatcher’s gutting of Britain’s industrial north, Glasgow is in steep decline. Its housing estates are whirlpools of mass unemployment, despair and violence. An army of redundant workers sinks into boredom and frustration and young men wage an ongoing sectarian war, with running battles between Catholic and Protestant gangs punctuating the tedium of binge-drinking and empty hours spent watching television.

War isn’t confined to the wastelands at the city’s edges. Domestic and sexual violence seep into bedrooms and kitchens, poisoning relationships, destroying families, filling every moment with dread, closing off the possibility of friendship or joy.

The novel’s structure moves in two directions. Alternating chapters describe events leading up to a critical moment, a movement titled “The January Before”, and events leading away from that moment titled “The May After”. Not knowing what is going to happen while at the same time witnessing its consequences creates a deeply uneasy tension. When the central event is finally revealed, the dread and sorrow at the heart of Mungo Hamilton’s story wash through the book like a tidal wave.

For 15-year-old Mungo, a shy, inarticulate boy full of nervous tics and twitches, his home is a purgatory from which he cannot imagine an escape. Everyone around him is determined to “make a man of him” in a violent, hypermasculine, homophobic world of frustration and the barely understood desire to cause hurt.

His older siblings, Jodie and Hamish, couldn’t be more different from Mungo, or from each other. Jodie offers him comfort when she can, but her own young life is crushed under the weight of men’s needs and demands. She only has so much to give and she too needs to escape. The children’s father was killed in a knife fight between rival gangs before Mungo was born. Since his death, their mother, Maureen, has sunk into a miasma of self-pity and alcoholism.

Hamish is the leader of his own Protestant gang. He shifts unpredictably, in the blink of an eye, from tender, brotherly affection to violent, physical cruelty. His mercurial nature keeps Mungo on edge, trying to keep his distance, but he is inevitably pulled into Hamish’s world. Hamish wants to “make a man” of Mungo and the boy is punished for anything considered a “weakness”.

When Mungo meets James – a Catholic boy who keeps a dovecote on a barren strip of ground behind Mungo’s tenement – barely acknowledged desires quickly come to the surface. Frightened by his feelings, but also liberated by them, he reaches out to James who, despite his own fears of being exposed as “one of those”, takes Mungo gently in his arms. In their playful and tentative steps towards intimacy, the joy that Mungo feels at James’s touch is achingly palpable.

In lesser hands, some of the characters in Young Mungo could appear as Dickensian caricatures. Stuart combines formidable literary skills with profound empathy for his creations, which means that each character – even the darkest and most violent – at some point reveals, even if only fleetingly, a fragility that is heart-stopping in its clarity and directness.

You won’t often find the people who populate Young Mungo in contemporary British fiction. They’re usually confined to the background of middle-class narratives – jeering football fans, anonymous henchmen, drink-addled scroungers, signposts of social disintegration, the despised “other”.

Stuart’s characters are close kin to the people who inhabit the writing of James Kelman, whose stories spill out from Glasgow tenements and bedsits in angry and abrasive prose that can also be laugh-out-loud funny and deeply compassionate. Also a native Glaswegian, Stuart has some of the same gifts as Kelman: he can carve out of rough, vernacular speech a startlingly vivid and expressive language. Its cadences drive the narrative and articulate detailed, delicate portraits of characters and their lived experience.

This novel has echoes of Shuggie Bain, which is also set in Glasgow, but Young Mungo is a darker story. There is more violence here, and it occurs in a much less forgiving environment. These brutalities exist in Shuggie Bain, but just under the surface; here they are exposed in all their terrible reality. Perhaps after the success of Shuggie Bain, this is the story that Stuart needed – and was able – to tell.

The similarities between the two novels are not mere repetition, any more than the shambling characters that appear time and again in Samuel Beckett’s prose are copies of each other. Like Beckett, Stuart is looking at his creations from different angles. Vermeer is famous for how the light falls on his subjects: it’s always sunlight through windows. But in every painting it is a different light.

What Stuart achieves in his portrait of this unforgiving world is a small miracle. In the midst of the damage are moments of compassion and forgiveness. The love between Mungo and James is a haven for both of them, but they both know that it is also dangerous; there is always the threat of discovery by those who hate what they have discovered in each other, those who would punish them for being who they are.

Floating on a sea of loss and damage, this love transforms a story populated with broken lives into a lament that contains a barely imaginable hope and a rare kind of beauty. 

Picador, 400pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart".

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Daniel Keene is a playwright and critic.

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