Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Review by Ally Muterspaw
Publication: April 2022
When Trauma Plotlines Feel Inevitable: A review of Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
If you have read or ever heard of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize, or are familiar with the Scottish-American writer, then you might expect a specific set of social circumstances. Like Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s sophomore novel, Young Mungo, tells a story of systemic poverty, toxic masculinity, and gay/queer sexuality. In 1980s Glasgow, male-led Catholic and Protestant gangs run the city, teen pregnancy is rampant, and youth are granted little aspirations outside of romance and sex. The novel’s protagonist, Mungo Hamilton, doesn’t fit into this environment; he is a sensitive 15-year-old boy, aptly named after the city’s benevolent Saint. When Protestant Mungo begins to fall in love with the Catholic James, the only emotional outlet the boys have places their lives at risk. The novel is told in two separate storylines; one in the present, where Mungo is on a fishing trip with two men, while the primary narrative relays Mungo’s burgeoning relationship with James, along with the social pressure to join the gang led by his brother, Hamish. The timelines begin to converge in a devastating turn of events for the teen boys.
Economic suffering in Young Mungo reflects the everyday sufferings of global capitalism; emotional apathy is central to the social dynamics of Glasgow. The novel is set in the first few years of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, whose defunding of manual labor projects in Scotland is still felt in the present day. Labor jobs steadily disappear, living tenements are barely habitable, and many young people like Hamish are granted no hope for a safe and stable life. The women in Mungo’s life, his mother (called Mo-Maw) and sister Jodie, recognize his fragile, but unique qualities. Incapable of fulfilling the expectations of violent masculinity and compulsory heterosexuality, Mungo feels that his only chance of happiness is outside of Glasgow. Under the conditions of being outed, Mungo can never return home if he leaves with James. The burden of this choice pressures the protagonist throughout the novel.
Stuart’s environment is remarkable to read, particularly with the balance of nuance and empathy he creates through the characters’ questionably ethical behavior. In the throes of surviving everyday life, aspirations diminish. The author presents this nuance through Jodie’s obligated role as Mungo’s obligated caregiver. When her life is complicated by an unexpected pregnancy through the consequences of a financially enticing affair, she decides to get an abortion. In perhaps one of the first times in her life, Jodie prioritizes her happiness and understands the burden of young women’s opportunities that are placed aside to prioritize the men in their lives. Jodie’s decision is a radical one, especially in an environment where abortion was rare, and difficult for minors to access. Jodie’s radical choices solidify the dangers of surviving Glasgow.
The past tense narrative sets the provenance of the novel’s socioeconomic turmoil. At the same time, the other storyline takes place in “The May After” the expected outcome of James and Mungo being outed. Mungo is sent by his mother to “man up” on a fishing trip in Northern Scotland with two strange men named Gallowgate and St. Christopher. Mungo ends up being molested by both men on the trip, a traumatic plotline presented as an inevitability. During the weekend, Mungo murders the two men and returns to Glasgow alone. At the end of the novel, police find Gallowgate’s body, and want to question Mungo, since his mother notified the police that he could be in danger. Hamish pretends to be Mungo and goes in for questioning, while Mungo sees James at a nearby bus stop. He is left with a choice: to stay in Glasgow, or to go into the unknown with someone he loves.
A feeling that is difficult to shake throughout the novel is the feeling of dread; the threat of sexual violence toward Mungo feels inescapable. In plenty of LGBTQ+ stories, real and fictional, we know the constant threat of violence that is present in private spaces. Isolated spaces have historically been a safe haven for our community, like the secluded spaces where the boys spend their time, or dangerous, like the fishing trip. While it’s in Mo-Maw’s character to send her son off with strange men, I still question the motives of Stuart’s device with this plot. Does the reader need to see that an abusive form of masculinity is more socially acceptable than the intimate, gay love between Mungo and James? Or is more acceptable than Chickie, Mungo’s neighbor, who remains unmarried? Possibly, but I imagine that most readers probably enter the novel with this mindset. At the apex of the love story, Mungo was ready to leave Glasgow; the arrest, murders, and outing of Mungo and James’s relationship don’t cause the love between the two boys to falter; on the contrary, these events emotionally devastate Mungo into emotional apathy, until the final chapter.
Perhaps Hamish’s potential arrest is a practical plot device Mungo needs to leave Glasgow. Hamish, essentially the “father” of the house, continuously risks his life for his siblings, girlfriend, and child. Pretending to be Mungo is a fulfillment of this responsibility, granted that he knows how to call off the police. This responsibility does not feel just or satisfying, since Hamish must reckon with the effects of traumatizing Mungo through a violent public entity that criminalizes poverty. What kind of accountability can be accomplished when Hamish fears for his and Mungo’s lives? The family’s trauma is underlined with gang activity as a continuation of the centuries-long sectarian violence that plays in Scotland’s history. Gang life is just another trait of generational trauma young men inherit in Glasgow.
Despite the plot devices, Stuart’s well-researched and emotional nuance makes the novel worth its suppressive atmosphere. Mungo’s conflicted feelings about upholding his familial responsibilities, and living an authentic life, are at the core of this novel. Many in our community reckon with the concept that familial love comes with conditions, but the chance to explore sexuality can be a sacred one. There is a certain power at the end of the novel when Mungo feels the glimmer of redemption in his relationship with James. How often do LGBTQ+ characters experience an upswing of hope at the end of their story, especially in the 1980s? I imagine Young Mungo will be just as successful as Shuggie Bain, and rightfully so. However, the question remains for our communities’ stories on what doses of trauma are critical in storytelling, and what are repetitive to the same bouts of trauma that feel overwrought.
Young Mungo is available now from Grove Atlantic.
About the reviewer:
Ally Muterspaw is a librarian based in Indianapolis, IN. She is an active member of her union, and lives with her partner and their cats. While Ally is newer to publishing her writing, her work has been published in Bi Women Quarterly, and has written blogs for her local bookstore. She focuses her writing on LGBTQIA+ book reviews and pop culture.