Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in the hyper-masculine and violently sectarian world of Glasgow’s housing estates. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find sanctuary in the pigeon dovecot that James has built for his prize racing birds. As they find themselves falling in love, they dream of escaping the grey city. Mungo works especially hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.
But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland with two strange men whose drunken banter belies murky pasts, he will need to summon all his inner strength and courage to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.
Length: 391 pages
Content Warnings: sexual abuse, alcoholism, violence, homophobia
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Let’s start with what this book isn’t: it isn’t a cute queer romance to gush over. And it isn’t an easy read at all.
This is a story about abuse, poverty, and growing up gay in a world where your life is in danger because of who you are.
I picked up Young Mungo because I read Shuggie Bain by Stuart and absolutely loved it. It was one of my favourite reads of last year (2021) because it portrays a world that is so rarely seen in fiction: that of poverty in Britain.
Stuart sets both Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo in Glasgow in the 1980s/1990s (I’m not entirely sure of the exact date). And both explore the lives of those who live on what are known in Scotland as ‘schemes’ and in England as ‘council estates’. They both feature a young, gay male protagonist with an alcoholic single mother, an older sister, and an older brother. The young protagonist in both books is the one member of the family who still cares about their mother, and wants to look after her.
So my main criticism of Young Mungo shouldn’t come as a surprise. It felt very much like it wanted to be a sequel to Shuggie Bain. But because it’s literary fiction, it couldn’t be (just my interpretation). I appreciate that Stuart is portraying this world in his writing and I think that is an amazing, valuable thing. I just wish that the family in the two books were a bit different. Maybe a different set of siblings, or something different about the mother? I felt like characterization in this book was the weakest point of it. At times I really did feel like I was still reading about Shuggie as I was reading about Mungo. They felt very much one and the same.
But that’s really it for criticisms. Stuart’s writing in Young Mungo fantastic, with a good sense of place and enough description that I could see the world Mungo walks through. I really enjoyed seeing the relationship between Mungo and James develop. Mungo really grows up through that relationship and discovers who he is. This does of course put him in danger, because Mungo is expected to be a ‘man’ by his family. And in this context, being a ‘man’ means being violent, being tough, being the sort of person who gets into trouble with the police. In this way, the book does address ideas around toxic masculinity and the expectations put on young boys, especially those from poor backgrounds.
The biggest difficulty I had reading Young Mungo was the graphic nature of certain scenes. It really is a difficult book to read in places. I had to put it down a few times during certain scenes, and honestly I think that’s a good thing. Stuart’s writing is extremely realistic throughout Young Mungo. I could feel the boy’s terror coming through the pages. Despite their difficult nature, I think it’s important these things are portrayed though, and talked about.
Young Mungo is about the reality of growing up gay in a world where that isn’t acceptable. Which is hard to read about. It made me look at the society we live in today in the UK, and think about how much things have changed in regards to the acceptance of LGBTQ+ relationships and identities. The world Mungo lives in is one that is still very present in places both within the UK and globally. It serves to remind us that some people are still in this kind of danger simply because of who they are.
Overall, I think this is a highly important book, though a difficult one to read. I wish Stuart had made different choices in order to distinguish this from Shuggie Bain a little more. I also wish he had given more depth to the character of Mungo. Stuart seems to be writing primarily from an autobiographical perspective (though I don’t know how much this is based on his life), and his central characters do seem to be him in a lot of ways. But if this pattern continues throughout his work, I feel like his books may become quite repetitive.
I love Young Mungo for all the reasons I loved Shuggie Bain. It portrays a community that I rarely see in fiction, and a time which many seem to want to forget. A time when being LGBTQ+ was not acceptable in British society. These books are massively important. If you can handle reading the difficult scenes in Young Mungo, I would highly recommend it.