Young Mungo

Douglas Stuart

Grove Press

“Do you see what ah mean?”
Mungo had been working hard at seeing what people really meant. Mo-Maw and his sister, Jodie, were always nagging him about that. Apparently there could be some distance between what a person was saying and what you should be seeing. Jodie said he was gullible. Mo-Maw said she wished she had raised him to be cannier, less of anybody’s fool. It was a funny thing to be a disappointment because you were honest and assumed others might be too. The games people played made his head hurt.

                      from Young Mungo



Amid the bleakness comes tenderness, and a flicker of hope

The Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart wowed the book world with his debut novel, Shuggie Bain (2020), receiving a number of prestigious literary awards including the Booker Prize. His autobiographical novel told the gritty, grim, yet touching story of a young boy growing up in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother.

Win the Booker with your first novel? Impressive, but, people wondered, what would he do for a second act. Well, Act II has now arrived, an autobiographical coming-of-age story about a boy and his alcoholic mother that is even grittier, grimmer, and even more touching than the first book.

Named after Glasgow’s patron saint, 15-year-old Mungo lives in the tough tenements of Thatcher’s economically and spiritually blighted era. A gentle lad, kind of heart, he’s been largely raised by his sister Jodie, one and one-half years older, in the absence of their mother, called “Mo-Maw.” Maureen has been on a perpetual quest to find a man who will provide her the life she feels she deserves. The love for her children is genuine, but has always seemed an afterthought; yet Mungo remains devoted to her.

There is also his older brother, Hamish, a vicious and violent leader of the Protestant boys in their gang fights against the Catholic boys. Amid this brutal and brutalizing world of poverty, neglect, and tribal warfare, Mungo finds a tender friendship with James, a Catholic boy who raises pigeons, and a sweet “star-crossed lovers” sub-theme develops (Romeo and Julio?)

Stuart is a “writer’s writer,” not only for his insightful observations captured in gorgeous prose (“Mo-Maw had a weakness for compliments, she never seemed to care if they were sincere or not.”) or for the vivid descriptions—Mungo lying on his back “had ribs like the hull of an upturned boat”—but also for the gripping narrative structure: The book opens with “The May After.” After what? The next chapter is “The January Before,” and then in alternating chapters the reader is slowly drawn to the terrible, life-changing event that happened between January and May, giving the story an almost thriller-like tension.

Written with a harsh realism, Young Mungo is permeated by violence and an unrelenting bleakness, tempting the reader to despair; yet amid the bleakness also comes a redemptive tenderness, and with the tenderness a flicker of hope. After all, Stuart eventually escaped Glasgow to write an award-winning autobiographical novel.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.