After I’d finished reading Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s Booker Prize winning novel from 2020, I imagined his second novel might be ‘Shuggie Bain grows up and falls in love.’ That’s exactly what Young Mungo (2022) is like, and what the rather audacious cover photo fortells. There is the same Scottish estate bleakness, an older brother, Hamish, this time one not so accommodating, and, of course, a child-like drug-addled and flirtatious girl-mother who doesn’t want to be one, a mother, that is. The characters are all different but to some degree similar. But, here there is also a sister, Jodie, desperate to get to university and not only away from her childhood and family but also away, far away, from ending up like her mother and the deathknell to any girl in her position is getting pregnant. That would seal her fate, as it did the fate of most girls her age and that of the mother, Mo-Maw – she hates being called Ma.
Writing a similar second novel to an extremely successful first is a sure way to consolidate a writer’s reader base. Hanna Kent did it very successfully with her second novel The Good People (2016) after her debut hit, Burial Rites (2013).
Stuart’s central character, Mungo Hamilton, is a nineteen year old Protestant lad and a victim of his mother’s inexpert, and downright malicious, mothering style. To counter Mungo’s un-masculine behaviour she packs him off with two very unsavoury men to ‘make a man of him’. This narrative thread is juxtaposed with the events that lead up to this ‘camping’ trip: namely his home life with his absent mother and violent brother which sees him attach himself to a young Catholic man, and pigeon fancier, James. This friendship staggers into a clumsy but charming romantic friendship that overwhelms both of them and sets them adrift from their families and society.
Although the camping trip to a Scottish loch is certainly a coming-of-age experience its double-climax is nothing that anyone, including this reader – and the writer, I’m guessing – ever expected. When these two narrative streams finally converge both James and Mungo, both battered and bruised, stare at each other across a busy road and dare to dream about a life together, even though us readers know Mungo’s future is most probably battered beyond salvation. I suspect we may hear more about young Mungo.
Young Mungo has the assured hand of a writer steeped in his Scottish background, and like Shuggie Bain, his handling of the Scottish accent, written phonetically, is the main driving force in painting the characters so vividly. This ‘reading’ of the phonetic dialogue is worth practicing. It doesn’t take long to master it, and it gives so much weight to the characters and the tone of the book. Give it a try.
Yes, like its predecessor, Young Mungo is harrowing at times especially with its depiction of what lengths families will go to keep their own in check. Selfishness is rife; love has nothing to do with it. If such writing upsets you it can’t be denied that your strong reaction to the contents or the characters, be it revulsion or annoyance, is solely due to the strength of the writing. Good writing elicits strong reactions, even negative ones.
Douglas Stuart is going to be a major player in the literary landscape for a very long time.
In this short video Douglas Stuart introduces Young Mungo shortly before it was released.
And here, you can follow Stuart talking about writing in general and his personal take on it. It’s mainly about what made him write in the first place, and therefore is more about Shuggie Bain, but those thoughts and ideas are also relevant to Young Mungo; about truth in fiction and how fiction comes from a very mysterious place.