Douglas Stuart’s second novel appears hard on the heels of 2020’s Shuggie Bain, a Booker prize winner with strong claims to instant-classic status, and is similar in a number of ways. Mungo Hamilton, like Shuggie, is born in the late 1970s and grows up in a tenement in Glasgow, a crabbed but oddly magical locale, with an older sister (Jodie), an older brother (Hamish) and an erratic “alkahawlick” mother to whom he is devoted (Mo-Maw). Again Stuart proves himself a wonderfully gifted writer, a virtuoso describer with a more or less infinite supply of tender detail and elegant phrasing. But Young Mungo, though immersive and rarely dull, emerges as a chaotic cousin to its straight‑shooting predecessor, and offers an altogether bumpier experience.
The key event is Mungo’s encounter during the winter half-term break with James Jamieson, a slightly older Catholic boy who keeps a dovecote near the grounds of the housing scheme where they live. Mungo and James fall in love and plan to escape as soon as Mungo turns 16, but their bond is doubly star-crossed. Mungo cannot tell which would be considered the worse betrayal in the eyes of his fearsome brother Hamish – that James is male or that he’s “Fenian”.
The backdrop is 1993, with sections titled “The May After” and “The January Before”. The first trajectory lasts a matter of days, during which Mungo takes a trip to the banks of Loch Lomond with a pair of men, even more unsavoury than they first appear, who are known to Mo-Maw from her occasional attendance at AA. But the other timeline moves briskly forward, so that Mungo’s meeting with Jamie takes place in the second chapter of the section entitled “The January Before”.
Stuart is a lucid storyteller, moving between the narratives with ease, but the novel is characterised by overkill and we are never trusted to get the message. Almost every paragraph seems to contain a redundancy – an extra bit of scene setting, or the near synonymous rephrasing of a well-established conceit. At one point, when Mungo is waiting for the “proverbial penny to drop” in a conversation with Hamish, there’s a 118-word description of a slot machine at “Mo-Maw’s favourite bingo” which creates a similar – albeit literal – coin-induced sense of anticipation.
Though Stuart is capable of economical effects, he elects to remind the reader of central dynamics and traits: “She wondered what lay ahead for her baby brother.” “Something in him could not stand to be loved.” “So, what was it about Catholics that made them so different?” As late as page 280, there is a description of Mungo’s relationship to Mo-Maw in the form of a 12-item list: confidant, lady’s maid, errand boy, flattering mirror, teenage diary, electric blanket, doormat, best pal and so on. Barely 10 pages from the end, Mungo encounters a stranger who tells him about his “artistic” son. He even wonders why he is hearing “about this one particular son out of the four sons he said he had”. The obvious conclusion is that the man intuits Mungo’s sexuality, but the scene occurs long after its undertones have been exhaustively established. The Hamiltons’ neighbours also pop up to share the burden. The local bachelor Poor-Wee-Chickie reminisces about a scenario almost identical to that between Mungo and Jamie: “I just didnae have the guts.”
In third-person novels, a great deal rides on formulations that present thought and speech without accompanying quotation marks. But again and again, Stuart tries to smuggle in supplementary insight or information. Mo-Maw, who at one point calls her daughter a “talking bicyclopedia”, tells Mungo that “the scrap merchant and his wife were good people, phlegmatic but harmless”. Jodie gives Mungo an Ellsworth Kelly catalogue and he flicks through, and appears to note the “supremely controlled line drawings”, the rectangles that “collided to make patterns and depth of tone from their layered repetition”.
A chapter in which Jodie and Mungo interrupt an act of domestic violence in the downstairs flat is symptomatic of Stuart’s slightly scattershot approach. It moves between perspectives, putting us in the head of the abused woman (“Even as he was battering her, she worried about his good name”) and then of Mungo (“He wanted to put his fingers in his ears”) before segueing into a neutral report of the Old Firm Derby: “Collins’s goal in the first half was followed by another from Payton, putting Celtic firmly in the lead. Rangers brought on their golden boy, McCoist, but they struggled to get back into the game.” Such details are relevant because, we are told from an apparently omniscient viewpoint, the violent husband has been angered by Rangers’ defeat. But then this turns out not to be the case, and so the match is irrelevant; the point of the scene is really to plant another thematic signpost. The woman excuses her husband’s appalling conduct because she loves him – much like the Hamilton siblings with Mo-Maw (“If anybody should understand … then it’s you two”).
Yet despite the multifarious frustrations, and even at its most overexplicit and overwrought, Young Mungo is the work of a true novelist. Bizarre technique cannot crowd out the energy of Stuart’s characters or the organic force of his teeming world. At times he recalls Dostoevsky, in whose work the powerful exists alongside the galumphing. Mungo’s predicament is piercing, and as the story draws to a close, a spectral beauty prevails.