Perhaps I should begin by admitting that I haven’t read Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker-winning novel Shuggie Bain. It’s a shame really, but I wish to slide the window open and sit down with it soon. When I picked up Young Mungo though, I found myself trapped in a haze. I don’t know exactly if it’s the good kind, or the bad, however, I know it’s something I’d be holed up in for the remaining months of the year.
Young Mungo moves between two timelines. In the opening chapter, two adults take the 15-year-old protagonist on a fishing trip. But it seems as if the teenager isn’t exactly interested in it. Surely, the idea of a weekend away from his family should put a smile on his face. If that’s not the case, what’s he grumbling about then? The bottom line is he’s occupied with heavy thoughts and the narrative structure doesn’t give away anything more than what’s acutely necessary.
Mungo is the youngest amongst his siblings, but what you have to remember here is that there’s not much of an age gap. His sister Jodie and brother Hamish are also teens, albeit with varying degrees of maturity. While Jodie babysits Mungo, Hamish roams around the town with a gang of boys and terrorises his enemies. And their single mother, Maureen, whom the young fellow adores to bits, is sadly an alcoholic. Her addiction is a story of its own that eats into her personality for better or worse. Maureen isn’t known for anything else ––she’s a bad mother who ultimately hates her children. For those who feel hate is a strong word, feel free to replace it with a milder synonym.
Maureen runs away from her home when she finds a man she can lean on, leaving Jodie and Mungo to look after themselves. She returns immediately when her new-found shelter crashes down on her. And yet Mungo makes room for her in his soft heart. Jodie says Maureen doesn’t deserve it, but Mungo is too naïve to get into debates with his sister regarding love and its experiments. You can say there’s a little streak of selfishness in him. He keeps on giving in the hope that he’ll receive it someday. But that’s what love is all about, right? Whether it’s romantic, or familial, you expect it to come back to you in brighter and shinier forms.
I like the relationship that Mungo shares with Jodie. It stands on a platform of mutual appreciation and trust. Jodie tells him all the secrets that she can’t possibly share with Hamish, and Mungo, in turn, dances to her tunes. In a family of four, these two appear to be the closest––it’s a family within a family. Hamish, on the contrary, brings violence with him. He uses his fists to speak a lot. He doesn’t think much before inflicting pain––physical and emotional––upon Mungo. Hamish can be used as a prime example of toxic masculinity that is seen in classrooms and boardrooms alike.
Although there’s so much to bite into, the nucleus of Young Mungo is in the love story that’s built between the youngest sibling and James (a Protestant and a Catholic, respectively). These boys discover romance and pleasure together. They dream about moving away from the unceasing shadows of Glasgow (where the novel is set). But homophobia follows them wherever they extend their arms. It’s within this sphere that Stuart operates. And it transported my mind to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. If Yanagihara drowns her characters in sexual violence and details the tragedies that envelop them, Stuart swiftly skids along the surface of cruelty. Even so, he brings sadness to the pages.
In a world that’s increasingly splitting on the lines of race, caste, gender, and sexuality, we need these novels now more than ever to help us ponder over what we’re fighting for and what we’re wasting our energy on. Mungo’s gentleness alone isn’t enough to alleviate darkness, but it’s a step in the right direction. It can walk us through the process of healing. I didn’t care for Stuart’s delicate, porcelain-like prose early on, but I was slowly drawn towards it like a moth to a flame, like a millennial to a social media app. Stuart plays with well-rounded emotions and morbidly connects them in intricate ways. And that’s all that matters.
By: Douglas Stuart
Price: Rs 699