“Funny and bleak in equal measure” – Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

IMG_2022-4-19-024024He won the Booker Prize for his debut Shuggie Bain and now he’s back with his second book, in relatively short order, and that book is Young Mungo.

Let’s start by addressing the similarities, shall we? Like Shuggie, Young Mungo concerns a mother raising three children. Like Shuggie, one of those children is dreaming of going away to university. Like Shuggie, the mum is something of a drinker, given to being taken advantage of by unsuitable men. As with Shuggie, the novel is set in Glasgow, the city Stuart knows so well. As with Shuggie, Mungo is something of an outsider, an outsider often among other outsiders (Young Mungo is a great novel for anyone whose ever felt even a wee bit different – which, these days, pretty much means anyone who has enjoyed reading since being young, right?).

But – and it’s a terrific, city-wide but – for all its similarities, it’s different as different can be. This is another story set in a similar time and place, each of Stuart’s families could well exist on the same half mile of ground, each of their tragedies is similar but different.

Mungo is being raised by his wayward mother (known as Mo-Maw), a youngish woman given to disappearing for great lengths of time with whichever fella she has shacked up with at that point, and his sister, Jodie (who is herself caught up in a bit of bother with one of her teachers). Mungo’s brother Hamish is an Artful Dodger sort, a thuggish, preening hooligan with a junior army and a girlfriend with a baby. Mungo is caught up, pinball-like, between these two, with one of them wanting the best for him and one of them wanting more of the same for him.

The novel covers a year, more or less, beginning with a fishing trip – two rough sorts taking Mungo out of town – and them skipping backwards to the previous year where we meet all of his family and take in the day to day ups and downs. The fishing trip runs like the Jaws theme tune thoughout the book. It’s quietly menacing. We know things will go wrong there. We know Mungo can, at times, be a bit Myshkin-like. But that isn’t to say that the day to day world is not without menace too (there are fights between Protestants and Catholics, fights between kids and the polis, stray moments of brutality coming from left field).

But – and it’s a but that the cover of the English edition trails in a way that we hope will infuriate any gammons accidentally wandering into a bookshop in the next few months – there is love here too, first love for Mungo, in the shape of James Jamieson, a local slightly older boy left to his own devices a lot with his dad away on the oil rigs and his mum no longer with us. Given where they live, it’s all terribly secret (and they have to pose with girlfriends to avoid the odd beating here and there), but there is something beautiful and pure and Kes-like about the relationship (maybe it’s the pigeons James works).

Of course we know, through hints and asides, that tragedy and violence lurks around every corner and it can feel a bit like you don’t want to spend time in either world as the book creeps on because, you know, you like Mungo and James and Jodie (at least) and want the best for them and – well, this isn’t a world in which the best often pays a visit or chooses to stay overlong.

Credit where credit’s due to Stuart for fashioning another page turner. The writing is lyrical and crisp and summons up an authentic and vivid world. It’s funny and bleak in fairly equal measure and his writing is good enough to have you momentarily feeling sorry for basturts even as you feel relief whenever one or two of them comes a cropper themselves. All told, we were glad we read it. We think it’ll do as well as Shuggie Bain did. That’s all that matters in the grand scheme of things eh?

Any Cop?: He’s certainly not dropped the ball or let the big win go to his head. The lad Stuart has done well again.

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