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.