~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
Mungo Hamilton is named after a saint. He lives in a tenement in present-day Glasgow, Scotland, with his irresponsible mother, Maureen Buchanan (Mo-Maw); his sympathetic but odd sister, Jodie; and his thuggish brother, Hamish (nicknamed “Ha-Ha.”)
Mungo is sixteen. He and his brother and sister frequently have to fend for themselves because Mo-Maw isn’t any kind of a mother at all. She is frequently absent, an unrepentant alcoholic. She is a slattern who cares more about attracting men than taking care of her three children. The men she attracts, of course, are hardly worth having. Her latest boyfriend’s name is Jocko.
Mungo’s sister, Jodie, is a sort of surrogate mother to Mungo. She cuddles Mungo as if he was a baby. She despises her mother, with good reason, and tries to protect Mungo from her ignorance.
Hamish, Mungo’s brother, is eighteen and a junior-league criminal. He is the head of a gang of boys who wreak havoc in the streets. He is violent, unpredictable, unsettling. It is easy for the reader to imagine that he will soon end up dead or behind bars. He is the father of a small child with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Mungo is afraid of Hamish and doesn’t want to be like him.
Mo-Maw gets a couple of men from her alcoholics’ group to take Mungo on a hellish weekend fishing trip. She hardly knows the two, so she couldn’t know that they are convicted child molesters. This is just one example of her egregious parenting skills. The fishing trip turns out to be predictably traumatic for Mungo.
Mungo meets an older boy in his neighborhood named James Jamieson. James owns a “doocot” (a large pen or a small shed for keeping pigeons) and welcomes Mungo’s friendship. They begin spending a lot of time together at the doocot and make plans after a while to run off and effectively escape their unhappy lives. With James, Mungo experiences happiness for the first time in his life.
Young Mungo is a coming-of-age story that might be set anywhere, in any country, but this one happens to be set in Scotland. It features a young protagonist who is better, finer somehow, than the circumstances of his life. He has a sensitive nature but is misunderstood by all those around him, who only believe he should be more like other boys. The only person who understands Mungo is his sister Jodie, and she has problems of her own, including getting pregnant by one of her teachers.
Young Mungo is a very effective, very readable, novel by Scottish writer Douglas Stuart. One of the most remarkable things about Young Mungo is that it comes just a year or so after Douglas Stuart’s previous novel, Shuggie Bain. They are a most impressive one-two punch by a new, young writer. (My review of Shuggie Bain is here: https://literaryfictions.com/2021/12/09/shuggie-bain-a-capsule-book-review/)
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp