Young Mungo is the second book by Douglas Stuart, the author of the 2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain. Shuggie Bain was such a brilliant, but also raw, heartbreaking and brutal book, that had such a deep impact on me. Young Mung was therefore one of my most anticipated new releases this year and I was so grateful for the opportunity to read an ARC of it. But even though the writing style and the portrayal of working-class life and toxic masculinity was quite similar to Shuggie Bain, this book was a little less devastating and Mungo a little less engaging character.
Just like Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo is a vivid coming-of-age story taking place in a depressing working class setting in Glasgow, with neglecting and abusive parents, alcoholism, homophobia and violence. Mungo is a bit older than Shuggie though, so the aspect of him realizing that he is gay and the forbidden relationship with James becomes central to the story. Despite all odds, Mungo a Protestant and James a Catholic, meet and fall in love when they should have been sworn enemies and despite knowing the harsh reactions this will evoke.
The story is told in a dual timeline, but with only a few months in between. From the present it takes us backward to Mungo’s life in the period up to and during the romance with James, and then back again. The story taking place in the present time reflects the aftermath of the relationship and adds a horrific twist when Mungo’s mother sends him on a camping trip to a remote Scottish loch with two men she knows from AA to make him ‘man up’, but only to send him straight into the hands of two child molesters. (No spoiler, this part is actually the opening scene of the book.) Like in Shuggie Bains, there isn’t any good news to expect. Around Mungo, his alcoholic mother and his siblings (Hamish, the brutal gang leader and Jodie, who dreams of going to university) there is poverty, unemployment, violence and prejudice, and an overall sense of hopelessness.
The mother is a little less in focus compared to Agnes in Shuggie Bain, so this book is more clearly Mungo’s own story. But that was perhaps also what made this book less engaging and emotional than Shuggie Bain, since Mungo as a main character is a bit bland and I never fully rooted for him the way I rooted for Shuggie, and the way I wanted to protect him from his mother. So, even though this book was not more brutal, violent or heartbreaking than Shuggie Bain I still found myself struggling more with the content this time. Perhaps because it felt too much after reading Shuggie Bain, or perhaps because I didn’t root as much for Mungo and therefore the joy and love that nevertheless was in the book didn’t outweigh the dark and disturbing parts.
But all in all, this was another beautifully written, heartbreaking and tragic coming-of-age story that showed the violence faced by many queer people and the terrible consequences that can come from loving someone you’re not supposed to in a surrounding full of toxic masculinity, prejudice and religious fundamentalism.
Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for the ARC of this book, which I have voluntarily reviewed.
3.5 stars rounding up to 4
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