Young Mungo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Young Mungo cover
Young Mungo
~ 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:

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Shuggie Bain ~ A Capsule Book Review

Shuggie Bain cover

Shuggie Bain
 A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp  

Shuggie Bain’s real name is Hugh. He is a slight, sensitive, preteen boy (at school he is called a “wee tiny poof”) living with his mother and his older half-brother and half-sister in a wretched housing complex in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie doesn’t have a very happy childhood. The family is poor and on the “dole,” but his biggest problem is that his mother, Agnes Bain, is a hopeless alcoholic, “hopeless” in the sense that she will never stop drinking, will never “get better,” and will eventually drink herself to death. Shuggie loves his mother and he believes, unrealistically, that if he stays by her side, when everybody else abandons her, he can protect her and get her to stop drinking.

Shuggie’s  estranged father is Shug Bain, or “Big Shug,” as he is called. He is a real bastard, a self-centered, womanizing, amoral taxi driver. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, leaves her first husband, taking her two children with her, to marry Big Shug. From that unfortunate union is born the youngest of her three children, Shuggie “Hugh” Bain.

Shuggie’s older half-brother is named Alexander but everybody calls him “Leek.” Shuggie’s half-sister is Catherine. Agnes if the kind of mother who makes her children want to get away from her. She has good intentions as a mother, but she always manages to disgust and alienate her children with her incessant drunkenness. Catherine marries at an early age and moves to South Africa, thousands of miles away from her mother.

The housing complex where Shuggie lives with his family is called Pithead. It was originally intended for coal miners, but most of the coal mines have closed down. The residents of Pithead are crude, spiteful, and cruel. The women hate Agnes Bain because she dresses up whenever she goes out of the house. People who like her tell her she resembles Elizabeth Taylor. Her good looks don’t help her very much.

The Scottish people in Shuggie Bain speak working-class English. They use a lot of words that American readers probably won’t be unfamiliar with. For example, “boak” means vomit; “biro” is an ink pen; a “grass” is a snitch; a “dout” is a cigarette; “wellies” are boots; “papped” means to be thrown out of the house; “weans” are children or offspring; “scheme” is a housing project; “gallus” is an act of boldness or daring. If you don’t have a dictionary of Scottish colloquialisms and slang, these unfamiliar words can usually be deduced from their context in the sentence.

Shuggie Bain is an ambitious (430 pages), rich first novel by a writer named Douglas Stuart. It is a story as much about a self-destructive alcoholic as it is about being the child of an alcoholic. It is a book steeped in time and place (Glasgow, Scotland, of the 1980s). A compulsively readable book, a book well worth reading.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp