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Novel set in GLASGOW and Western Scotland

19th April 2022

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, novel set in Glasgow and Western Scotland.

I listened to this as an audiobook and Chris Reilly does a terrific job of narrating the story.

It is 1993 and the chapters are divided between “The May After” and “The January Before”. The novel is quite painterly on different levels and builds up the layers in slow, lingering prose. The author gradually establishes the family set up and living conditions, in which Mungo (named after St Mungo, who has a major shrine in the cathedral in Glasgow) lives and spares the reader nothing. it is truly a wretched situation for this teenager. His 35 year old mother – Mo-Maw – is an alcoholic and craves affection from the men who wander through her life. She breezes in and out depending on her whims. Her eldest, Hamish, was conceived when she was 15, the same age that Mungo is in the story. Hamish is a vicious and  violent trouble maker, who terrorises everyone around him; he lives away, together with the mother of his infant and breezes back into the family, when the mood takes him – he usually wants something. Jodie, the middle child, cares as best she can for her younger brother and both youngsters are trying to cope with the role reversal of caring for their mother. – well, keeping their mother out of danger. There is hardly ever food on the table and the relentless misery of their circumstances is unremitting. It all feels very real, raw and visceral. No child should have to endure these living conditions.

The cover (in the UK) gives much of the story away and young Mungo, who has never felt comfortable around the womanising and toxic masculinity exemplified by his brother, falls for James and they spend hours together in his pigeon loft (doocot in Scottish), exploring their early sexuality and finding relief from the hardship of life beyond.

In the sections “The May After”, Mungo has been bundled off with two men, whom their mother met at AA, for a testosterone fuelled weekend by Loch Lomond. The men are rancid in their behaviour and bearing, and the author spares no detail in describing their putrid and rank souls. Their mission is to make a man of him and thus they all set off with two tents, changing buses until they reach their destination – a remote loch, where they establish their camp and get out the tins of lager and food.

Violence begets violence, and the author’s unflinching portrayal of deprivation and depravity is searing. It is a compellingly told story of miserable existences that have little chance of leveraging themselves to a better, kinder life. He skilfully fills in the details between the two time periods, building up a darkly depressing storyline as Mungo battles his way forwards.

Goodness, this is a novel of grinding poverty and hardship that in a way needs to be told. It is a social indictment, it is a chilling story of humanity and brutality. As a reader you will need to be in the right mood to read it and when the time is right, it is worth it.

The Guardian offers an interesting interview with the author 

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