Jo’s Pick of the Week: Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

A Forbidden Love Grows in Douglas Stuart's Glasgow

Young Mungo begins with a camping trip from Hell, launching a gripping story of the dysfunctional, fascinating Hamilton family. 

Author Douglas Stuart, who won the 2020 Booker Prize for his literary debut, Shuggie Bain, returns with another coming-of-age story set in the 1990s among the working poor of Glasgow, Scotland. The matriarch of the family, Maureen, gives birth to Hamish as an unwed teenager, followed by Jodie and Mungo. The siblings’ father dies in a knife fight before Mungo is born, leaving Maureen unable to cope with the stresses of being a single parent. She turns to drink, making the kids grow up way too soon. 

The family lives in a housing estate, barely making the rent every month. Hamish, now 17, follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a gang leader of Protestant boys who pick fights with Catholic youths. Sixteen-year-old Jodie, who excels in school, dreams of going to college, but Hamish tells her university life is not for Glaswegians like her. She resentfully takes on the parenting role when she is not in school or working. Fifteen-year-old Mungo adores his 34-year-old alcoholic mother despite her constant neglect. He is a sweet, handsome boy who has a nervous tic when he gets anxious.  

When Mungo meets James, who is Catholic, they become friends and soon fall in love. These star-crossed lovers must hide their relationship from family and society, and long to find a place where they can belong. Of course, their secrets eventually catch up with them.  

Douglas Stuart’s atmospheric writing made me feel like I was in Glasgow. He often uses Glaswegian speech, so “didn’t” is “didnae”, “doesn’t” is “doesnae” and “cannot” is “cannae”. The word “wee” also is used liberally. I got used to the dialect quickly. Stuart clearly writes from the heart, having grown up in poverty in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother who died when he was 16. He knows heartbreak and how to compellingly write about it. 

I deeply cared about Stuart’s haunting characters. While the book contains disturbing scenes of poverty, violence and sexual assault, he also gives us hope that some of the Hamiltons will make it. It is a thought-provoking story about surviving among the worst circumstances. Highly recommended. 

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