I’m not sure what I was expecting from Booker Prize Winner and current holder of my Book Of The Year Douglas Stuart’s second novel. The promise of a 1990’s set tale of young love in a working-class Glasgow setting suggested the author was not going to stray too far from “Shuggie Bain” territory and there may be some who claim this to be a re-tread with 15 year old Mungo Hamilton’s relationship with a toxic mother being again a main focus. This, however, is an outstanding novel and, I certainly wasn’t expecting to write this next bit, because of its greater focus on plot and sublime storytelling it is even better than his multi-award winning debut and perhaps the best book I have read since John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017)
It is another tale of a daily battle of survival here as Mungo battles against his environment, his disturbing older brother, Hamish, who overcompensates for his lack of height and thick glasses by being a ringleader for violence with an obsession for destroying the local Catholic youth and his mother Maureen, (known affectionately by Mungo as Mo-Maw) alcoholic and often absent. In “Shuggie Bain” the mother character, the monstrous but appealing Agnes is given a central role. Here, Mungo has to go it alone even more against Maureen’s fewer redeeming characteristics. His only ally, Jodie, is looking for an out through education, an escape route which proves more flawed than she might expect.
The central narrative thread takes place over a May Bank Holiday weekend in the early 1990s making this a decade or so after the action of “Shuggie Bain”. Mungo, battered and bruised from some incident is sent on a fishing trip to the Lochs with two of his mother’s friends. We are plunged into a tragi-comic situation of two alcoholics negotiating a journey completely outside their everyday existence with the naïve Mungo in tow. We know it is not going to go well.
Alongside this are the events leading up to this expedition. Mungo’s life shifts from the mundane and the threats of violence when he meets James, a Catholic boy with a dead mother and father who works away on an oil-rig in James’ hand-built doocot (pigeon coop). The boys find escape in caring for the pigeons (in a way reminiscent of Barry Hines’ “A Kestrel For A Knave” and film adaptation “Kes” of which there are echoes here and we know how well that turned out) and then in one another as love blossoms amongst the religious divide.
Once again, it’s beautifully written, there’s humour and warmth amongst the horrors but BAM! this author can hit you right between the eyes with shocking scenes of physical and psychological violence. Without doubt the mix can at times prove a difficult read. I never thought I’d feel more sympathy towards a character than Shuggie, but Mungo, with his facial tics, unsuitable attire and devotion to a mother whose actions are consistently poorly-judged tops it. Stuart does push further with the miseries than he did in the debut really putting his young hero through it and there is the odd moment where he might have been in danger of pushing too far and risking melodrama but such strong characterisations rooted so convincingly stops this from happening. I did finish this feeling emotionally purged finding moments that I did not really want to read on from but ultimately being totally unable to take my eyes off the book.
I think if you are new to Douglas Stuart I’d suggest starting with the debut as he sets his stall out as a writer so well and then take this on to appreciate the upping of the ante. I think the many, many readers who hold “Shuggie Bain”, like me, so dear in their hearts are going to be so impressed by this.
Young Mungo is published in the UK by Picador in hardback and as an e-book on 14th April 2022. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.