Young Mungo is the next book following on from Douglas Stuart’s remarkable and powerful debut “Shuggie Bain” for which he won the 2021 Booker Prize and which is in the Den’s Dozen top reads. This read is slightly more problematical which is why we have made it our Wild Card Choice. Somewhat surprisingly, the books storyline is again about a young boy who doesn’t fit in growing up in poverty in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother. Secondly it lacks the humour of Shuggie Bain and the main characters Mungo and Mo-Maw are not such likeable characters as Shuggie and Agnes. And finally, the cover gives a major theme of the book away – it’s like regretting watching a film trailer in case it reveals the plot. But once you put those thoughts aside, you are left with a book which is many ways more powerful, more emotionally draining and more gut wrenching than ‘Shuggie Bain.’
Mungo Hamilton is 15 and lives on a Protestant ….. estate in poverty in Glasgow with his alcoholic mother, Mo-Maw, a “hard man” of a brother Hamish and his intelligent no-nonsense elder sister Jodie. The story opens with Mungo going on a fishing trip with two men, one elder St Christopher and one younger rather sinister Callowgate to a special spot they know at Loch .........The story cleverly switches from the loch to the sequence of events leading to that point so the reader is immediately wondering why Mungo is on this trip he clearly doesn’t want to be on, with these two oddballs.
As the book flips back to Glasgow we see Mungo’s mother Mo-Maw regularly disappearing for weeks on end leaving her eldest daughter Jodie to look after young Mungo before returning and throwing herself into AA meetings. Jodie is an intelligent and ambitious young woman, who earns her own money working in a café and is relentlessly scathing of her mother. She wants Mungo to be like her, but he is sensitive, less clever and lacks her drive. The elder brother, Hamish or Ha-Ha as he is called, feels rather stereotypical even if he does wear glasses – he’s a hard man, father at the age of ….and leader of a group of young “Prodders” constantly looking out for a fight so re-enforcing the Sectarian violence theme.
This book focuses less on the bond between a young boy and their alcoholic mother, and more on the consequences of having no role model for a mother as Mo-Maw really can’t be bothered with her children. With so much time on his own, Mungo meets James, a pigeon fancier whose mother has died and father works the rigs so again is absent. James is open about his sexuality and unsurprisingly catholic. As the two become close and Mungo starts to spend more time with James, the family become suspicious of Mungo’s intentions and set out to end the relationship. So when Mo-Maw meets St Christopher and Callowgate at one of her AA meetings, she persuades them to take her son with them on their fishing trip despite the clear alarm bells ringing in her head. Every time the story moves to the loch, your heart is in your mouth, as you know it is not going to end well.
But this book draws you in. There are moments, particularly when Mungo is on the fishing trip, when we had to book the book down. It is gripping and gruelling at the same time. Stuart never takes the easy option for his characters, which is why it will probably bring tears to your eyes and why it is our Wild Card Read. Not one for everyone, but if you loved Shuggie Bain, give this a go, if you struggled with Shuggie Bain then this is not for you.