Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Published by Picador on April 14th 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and

all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in a hyper-masculine world. They are caught between two of Glasgow’s housing estates where young working-class men divide themselves along sectarian lines, and fight territorial battles for the sake of reputation. 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 doocot that James has built for his prize racing pigeons. As they begin to fall in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo must work 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 behind whose drunken banter lie murky pasts, he needs 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.

What I Say

The thing about reading a Douglas Stuart novel is that you know your heart at some point is going to break, because the incredible beauty of his writing pitched against the unforgiving and brutal world his protagonists live in, only serves to make you want to save and protect them. To read Young Mungo is a challenging, at times incredibly upsetting and heart rending experience, but one that gives you hope as to the power and overwhelming nature of love in all its forms.

Young Mungo lives with his erratic alcoholic mother nicknamed Mo-Maw, his sister Jodie and his brother Hamish on the Protestant side of a Glasgow housing estate. While Mo-Maw disappears for days leaving her children with no food and a stack of unpaid bills, Jodie is dreaming of a life far away from the Glasgow housing estate and her relationship with her teacher, while the tyrannical Hamish is spending his days leading a group of young Protestant men, as well as terrorising anyone that dares to cross him.

The narrative moves between two stories. That of Mungo and his day to day existence on the estate, and of a fishing trip his mother arranges for him to take with two extremely dubious individuals, St Christopher and Gallowgate. They are attempting to ‘make a man of him’, and by taking him far away into the Scottish countryside, it soon becomes clear that the men have much more sinister intentions towards Mungo, and will use him however they want.

As we read about the fishing trip early on, we aren’t sure as to why this has happened and what Mungo is supposed to be getting out of it. Yet as the story of his time on the estate is revealed, we start to understand why his mother was so insistent he went. Mungo is gay and has fallen in love with James, a Catholic boy who lives on the other side of the housing estate, who finds solace in looking after his doocot and pigeons. Like Mungo, he comes from a fractured family – his mother has left, and his father works on the oil rigs leaving James alone for long periods of time.

Mungo and James become closer, and it is clear that the attraction they feel towards each other is also clouded by the fact that they know the incredible prejudice and immense danger they will face from those around them if they are seen together. Their idyllic bubble is soon burst, and Mo-Maw makes the decision to send Mungo away with two men who in fact turn out to be the ones who treat him as nothing more than their plaything.

Young Mungo shows the depth of love that Mungo has for his family, wanting to feel loved by his mother, knowing that Jodie needs to leave their lives to grow, and in spite of the violent and destructive way Hamish lives his life, Mungo still turns up for him when they need to face the Catholic gang on his estate. Ultimately they will show their love for Mungo, and that is what makes us realise that love comes in many forms.

As always, Douglas’ writing is utterly captivating, with the every day mundane reality of life on the housing estate contrasted with the beauty and peace of the natural world, seen through the eyes of a young man who is experiencing it for the first time. The characters are not perfect, but that is what makes them three dimensional and real. They are all in their own way trying to make the best of what they have, and their ways of coping may not be easy to read, but you understand how they are all trying to find their place in the world.

I have to be honest and say that at times I had to put Young Mungo down because the sexual and physical violence were too much for me. The thing is, in spite of that, I still came back to it and carried on reading because Douglas instinctively knows how to make you feel this deep connection to all the characters and for me, especially Mungo and Jodie.

Mungo and James and the love they have for each other is not understood or accepted by all the people around them. You want Mungo and James to have a life together because you understand that they need each other to feel alive. In a world where so many people do what others want them to, we learn from Mungo and James that the bravest thing of all is to be with the person who gives you the strength to stand up for what you truly want and deserve.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Picador books for my gifted proof and finished copies.

You can buy Young Mungo from West End Lane books here.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

An immensely powerful and compulsive novel of maternal love, control and a woman at the mercy of addiction.

What I Say

From the moment you open the pages of this book, Sonya a single mum living in Dublin, this protagonist of Bright Burning Things bursts into the plot and seems to be an all encompassing passionate and vital woman, determined to ensure that her son Tommy has an unforgettable childhood with her.

What we learn about Sonya very quickly is that she is an alcoholic, dealing with a very real and invasive disease that is affecting her ability to care for Tommy and means that at times, this four year old boy is caring for his Mum. Make no mistake about Sonya, her love for her son is all encompassing and he is her world, but it is also evident to us from the start that her addiction to alcohol means that she is unable to care for him properly. Food in in short supply, he is not attending school, and there seems to be little or no routine for him as he helplessly watches his Mum try to exist in a world where what matters most is getting a drink.

Her Dad watches helplessly as his daughter slips further away from him, determined to do what she sees best for her and Tommy, even though we can see that unfortunately Sonya is not coping at all and needs help. Even when her Dad asks a neighbour Mrs O’Malley to be his eyes and ears and to make sure that she is coping, Sonya spirals into a world where Tommy is being neglected and she is unreachable. When finally Tommy is at risk, her Dad intervenes and facilitates an admission to a Rehab unit for twelve weeks, and if she refuses, he will remove Tommy from her care permanently.

Sonya ultimately knows that in order to keep Tommy, she has no choice but to agree, and has to deal with the reality that her son is living with foster parents and will do so until she can prove that she is fit to care for him. The description of Sonya’s time in rehab is hard to read, and you absolutely understand the huge emotional and physical demands that are placed on her, but at the heart of this experience is her realisation to fail would means losing the very thing that is keeping her there.

It is while she is in rehab that she meets David, a counsellor and former addict, and he seems to be the stability and hope that she needs. What becomes obvious to the reader is that she is relying on a man who seems intent on almost smothering her in his insistence at running the relationship his way, and her deep fear of losing her son means that for a while she is unable to articulate that she needs to be on her own with her son.

Lisa Harding is brilliant at showing us how chaotic, undisciplined and shifting Sonya’s world is, and while there is never any doubt as to the depth and breadth of her love for her son, there is also never any doubt as to how her alcoholism permeates every part of her life and world and she is constantly trying to ensure her addiction doesn’t lead to the loss of her son. As a reader with no experience of alcoholism, this novel was absolutely an education about this disease, and how the craving for drink obliterates reason and rationale. However on a human level, you cannot be failed to be moved by how much Sonya is aware of the struggle she is facing, and you feel her shame and anger at herself too. She knows this is not what a mother should be, but her fierce love and determination means that she understands that rehab is the only way in which she can give herself a chance at spending the rest of her life with her son.

Bright Burning Things is undoubtedly a raw and unflinching book about the realities of alcoholism, and to see how Tommy is trying to look after his Mum and be there for her at such a young age is difficult to read. What I loved about this book, is the way in which Sonya grows from defining her world by men and needing to have a drink, to realising that her best hope of change is to put herself and Tommy firmly at the front of everything she does.

I also felt like the book was split stylistically- pre-rehab, where her world seems surreal at times as she is unconfined by rules and regulations and pleases herself, and post-rehab, where she slowly understands the power she holds within herself and the realisation that she needs to be Tommy’s mother. The writing is at times hypnotic and immersive as you find yourself absorbed and disconnected from reality in Sonya’s world, and there were passages that were so beautifully laid bare for the reader, that it was impossible not to be moved.

In Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding has created a protagonist in Sonya who may exasperate us at times, delight us often and may infuriate us at others. Yet above all she has created for us that undeniable emotional connection where all you want is for Sonya to get the chance to be the mother you know she can be, and the Mum that Tommy truly deserves.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.