When authors create a name for themselves from the success of a first novel, entering the territory of a second can be dangerous. Do you use the same formula that worked the first time? Or do you try something new to not be labeled as playing it safe?
Scottish-American author Douglas Stuart decided to mix the two. On the back of his Booker prize winner Shuggie Bain, Douglas took the same formula of late nineties Glasgow poverty, and a young man with the potential to do more than what his pragmatic surroundings offer him, and mixed it with more chaos and grit, creating the tumultuous relative that is Young Mungo.
And it doesn’t disappoint. The main character is Mungo Hamilton, a 15-year-old from Glasgow who lives with his mother, Mo-Maw, and his older sister Jodie. His father is out of the picture, and he has a strained relationship with his older brother Hamish, who plays the toxic masculine male figure who wants Mungo to ‘man-up’. Mungo begins a romantic relationship with a Catholic boy, James Jamieson, but must hide it from his family and the rest of his world. This plotline is intertwined with the present tense, where Mungo is sent on a camping trip by his mother to ‘man-up’, with two, older, men who exploit him.
Douglas’ storytelling is an art form, full of elaborate depictions of feelings and emotions which is a feat when writing in the third person. He doesn’t shy away from getting down to the nitty-gritty feelings of human emotion, depicting characters both young and old that are so believable, that as an adult you can’t help but recognise them in your past and present self. In the intimate scenes between James and Mungo, Douglas depicts a raw and innocent reflection of young love in such an eloquent way that you feel the nerves and anxiety of Mungo through the pages.
When James reaches up and touches Mungo’s hair, Mungo reacts like so: “A fissure Mungo hadn’t known about cracked open in his chest; beneath it was a hollow feeling that had never bothered him before. It was an agony not to raise his own hand and touch the hairs James’s fingers had licked. It burned.” You feel Mungo’s yearning, through these detailed portrayals of his emotions, and can’t help but be completely captivated.
It’s an all-consuming, Romeo & Juliet forbidden love trope, intertwined with homosexuality, religious divides, and economic struggles, topped off with a sprinkling of family troubles and alcoholism. Young Mungo is raw and uncomfortable for the most part, but is near impossible to put down.
Each character is dealing with their own complications; From Mo-Maw’s alcohol addiction, to Jodie’s unattainable dream to go to university and her romantic relationship with her married teacher. Hamish struggles to provide for his young family, whilst even Mungo’s neighbour Mrs Campbell suffers at the violent hands of her husband. Young Mungo has its fingers in many pies but dabbles in them just enough to create well-rounded characters and plots without becoming too convoluted.
As a reader, you are constantly challenged with whom to blame for the awful positions Mungo and his family end up in. Do you blame poverty which closed many opportunities for them? Do you blame his mother for failing to care for her children? Do you blame society which created this volatile environment?
Young Mungo is suffocating, frustrating, human, miserable, beautiful and gut-wrenching. Some may hate it – it can be a little corny in some ways- but others, like myself, were completely captivated by its gritty messiness. For me, this is undoubtedly another successful novel from Douglas Stuart.
Words by Panayiota Demosthenous