Young Mungo

Douglas Stuart

Young Mungo
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Young Mungo

Douglas Stuart

Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in the hyper-masculine and violently sectarian world of Glasgow’s housing estates. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the pigeon dovecote that James has built for his prize racing birds. As they find themselves falling in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo works especially hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.


But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When 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 get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.

Imbuing the everyday world of its characters with rich lyricism and giving full voice to people rarely acknowledged in literary fiction, Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo is a gripping and revealing story about the bounds of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.

Review

Imagine winning one of the world’s biggest literary awards with your debut. In 2020, Scottish author Douglas Stuart became one of just six authors to win the Booker Prize for a first novel. Shuggie Bain was one of those miracles of publishing: a book that lived up to the effusive word-of-mouth, beloved by critics and readers alike. Naturally the anticipation for his second novel, Young Mungo, is sky-high.

To some readers Young Mungo might feel like its predecessor. Once again Stuart has chosen to roam the housing schemes of working-class Glasgow; our guide this time, the sweet, guileless 15-year-old Mungo. His alcoholic mother comes and goes, full of resentment over having children so early in life. Middle sister Jodie is left to look after the family, while the eldest, 18-year-old Hamish, leads the local Protestant gang and is violently insistent on initiating Mungo into his bloody territorial wars against the Catholic boys. Mungo himself is only starting to feel out his own definitions: he loves his mother, and forgives her too much; he is repulsed by the explosive violence of Hamish and the other men around him, but sees no alternative ways of being a man. When we meet him at the start of the novel, Mungo is being sent away on a trip with two men from his mother’s AA group. The reason for this temporary exile is gradually revealed to us.

With tenderness and honesty, Young Mungo explores the reality of coming of age as a young gay man against the backdrop of a violently sectarian Glasgow in the 1990s. It’s also a necessary reminder of the all-too-recent prejudice and open violence LGBTIQA+ people endured. Stuart is gifted in his ability to capture both visceral dread and the sweet ‘guid-and-true’ glimmers of first love. Some particularly harrowing moments, which surpass Shuggie in their devastation, may have readers needing to put down the book, but just when you think the darkness is too much, Stuart switches to a golden moment of succour.

With its wonderful Glaswegian colloquialisms, lively characters and compelling, addictive pacing, Young Mungo is classic storytelling at its best. Read it if you love fiction that’s unafraid of big feelings, but prepare to have your heart broken too.


Jackie Tang is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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