Love is a difficult subject for even the most skilled novelists to tackle, but perhaps especially so for contemporary Scottish writers. The challenge comes in two halves. The first is the result of our recent history. The post-industrial landscape in which many Scottish writers came of age has been defined in the national consciousness by its very absence of love: what time is there to talk about such luxuries, these places seem to ask, when the day-to-day traumas of poverty, addiction and sectarian violence seem that much more visceral, that much more worthy of study? The second half is more cultural. Northern climates don’t seem to be very conducive to talking about emotions. As the old saying goes: “a Scotsman once loved a woman so, so much… that he nearly told her.”
Douglas Stuart directly confronted this Scottish taboo in his 2020 Booker Prize-winning first novel Shuggie Bain, a moving account of 1980s Glasgow in which even the most flawed and difficult people—in particular Shuggie’s mother Agnes—are still capable of eliciting our love. It also offered a riposte to the tired assumption that working-class life is composed of nothing but drudgery. In Shuggie Bain, crippling poverty has not turned love into some rationed commodity to be scrimped and stowed away like everything else—but rather made it the bedrock on which everybody’s survival depends.
In his second novel, Young Mungo, Stuart has made the natural shift from familial to romantic love, as his subject matter moves from childhood into adolescence. Although an entirely separate story, Young Mungo is in many ways a sequel to Shuggie Bain. We meet 15-year-old Mungo Hamilton in the 1990s, at the point in time we left Shuggie. (In an early piece of conscious scene-setting, a neighbour’s rant about Thatcher is cut short by the reminder that John Major is now prime minister.) Mungo himself comes from similar circumstances as Shuggie, with two siblings, a wayward alcoholic mother and an absent father (this time dead, not merely “away”). Most crucially Mungo is also “different” like Shuggie, but as an older boy he finds it harder to ignore not only the taunting at school but also his own developing sexuality.
This is further compounded by Glasgow’s sectarianism. Mungo’s family are Protestants and his elder brother Hamish a nihilistic leader of a local gang notorious for slashing and stabbing “Fenians twice their height and all for the chuckles of it.” It is while Mungo tries to reconcile his difficult family life with his growing love for a Catholic boy, James Jamieson, that Stuart’s novel finds its rub: the religious bigotry surrounding Mungo makes his homosexuality not only illicit and shameful, but also genuinely life-threatening.
Strikingly, Young Mungo is a more outwardly allegorical story than Shuggie Bain: here, characters and events always seem to represent more than what they are on the surface. Even Mungo’s name, which he shares with Glasgow’s patron saint, seems to reveal something about him as a person:
Of all the legends, he liked the one about the bird the best; how St Mungo had brought the little robin back to life after it had been killed by the cruel children. Jodie said that was his power, that after their father died, he gave life back to Mo-Maw when she had given up on it for herself. He loved Jodie. He forgave her when she lied to him.
It is almost too convenient that Mungo should meet James for the first time at a hidden doocot (Scots for dovecot), where James finds refuge from his difficult father by capturing and rearing pigeons. Even here, James has his own indirect retort to the supposed saviour that we might expect Mungo to be:
“If one of my birds leaves me, how can I be angry? It’s my fault for not making a good enough doocot for them. They must not have been happy enough to stay.” Two pigeons were pecking at each other through the wire of their cages. James drew a hand between them and moved them apart.
From this initially guarded position both James and Mungo slowly fall in love. Stuart captures with sensitive detail the incremental games of brinkmanship that both play against each other. One day something just clicks: an impulsive attempt at a kiss ends in the two boys bumping heads. “Did you just headbutt me?” Mungo asks. “We could pretend it was a headbutt if you like?” suggests James, but by that point they both know it’s time to stop pretending. The second kiss is “like hot buttered toast,” while a third “like burning peat and golden tobacco.”
Over the course of a few days, while James’s father is away working on a North Sea oil rig, the two boys finally get the chance to develop this daunting but exciting relationship. Those initially shy moments of intimacy grow familiar and comfortable: “their kisses were soft and tender and offered without the fear of refusal.” They share baths and wrestle, “their gangly limbs wrapped together, clumsy and inexperienced, hands too hurried, greedy fingers too eager to rush on to other delights.”
At moments like these, Young Mungo contains the seeds of a story with real emotional weight. Unfortunately, that story never quite emerges in full. The time that we spend with Mungo and James is fleeting, with more of our attention taken up by the travails of the Hamilton family and others who live in the same east end neighbourhood.
Occasionally this broad portrait provides touching moments: like Mungo’s encounters with Poor-Wee-Chickie, a middle-aged gay bachelor in the tenement flat below who has become something of a local bogeyman; and pawnbroker Jocky, his mother’s latest squeeze, who turns out not to be as bad as he first thought. Elsewhere, however, these vignettes can read like an early draft of Shuggie Bain. Mungo’s mother Maureen possesses the faults and baggage of Agnes without eliciting the same sympathy: she treats Mungo and his siblings “like the used plates that she kicked under the bed and hid beneath the bed skirt.” As a consequence, Mungo’s unconditional attachment to her feels unconvincing—too one-dimensional and closer to infatuation than a genuine familial bond.
As it progresses, Young Mungo gets increasingly bogged down by its elaborate framing narrative about a perilous fishing trip that Mungo takes with two strange men from his mother’s Alcoholics Anonymous group. Chronologically set after Mungo’s relationship with James has been discovered by his family, it is supposedly Maureen’s ill-judged way of helping her son “get over” his homosexuality—throughout we jump back and forth between the fateful trip (“the May after”) and everything that led up to it (“the January before”). It’s dramatic in its own way, perhaps, but often feels like the wrong focus. The trip inevitably goes pear-shaped, a violent struggle breaks out between Mungo and the two men—but in a way that comes over as vastly extravagant when paired alongside what is otherwise a domestic family drama. The issue here has less to do with realism as such than what is proportional; by the time the novel’s two narratives converge, we are left with a story without a clear sense of its limits.
The novel’s overtly allegorical side is also frequently at odds with Stuart’s project of evoking the complex realities of a very particular place at a very particular time. Real people are flawed, but flawed characters do not make for reliable symbols; they mean too many different things to too many different people. At certain points in the latter half of Young Mungo, it can feel as though Stuart’s carefully constructed web of allegories has collapsed under the weight of these contradictions. What does Mungo’s involuntary tic on the side of his cheek actually mean—or for that matter his sister’s nervous titter? Do Hamish’s milk-bottle glasses represent his inability to empathise and “see” others for who they really are, or are they a sign of vulnerability hidden behind his brutal exterior? As these unresolved symbols stack up, the book’s purported message about the nature of love in difficult circumstances begins to fray—before being hastily tied up again, and by something quite removed from love.
Stuart captures with sensitive detail the incremental games of brinkmanship that James and Mungo play against each other
When Mungo asks his brother Hamish why they are always fighting with Catholic boys in nearby Royston, Hamish rotates through several possibilities—“It’s about honour, mibbe? Territory? Reputation?”—before settling on what his intuition tells him: “Honestly, ah don’t really know. But it’s fuckin’ good fun.” Throughout Young Mungo, there is the constant threat of sectarian violence. But like Hamish’s own self-interrogation, what might have begun as an interesting line of questioning—into what might motivate this violence, not to mention how it comes between two people in love—ends without a satisfying answer.
The Billies from Dennistoun have their much-promised fight with the Catholic boys from Royston using bricks and knives. Mungo, an unwilling participant only present because of his brother’s threats, is hit in the face: very soon his “eye had scabbed shut” and “there was dirt trapped under the swelling; he could feel it scrape against his eyeball.” Other boys are beaten badly; some of them are expected to die. By this point whether or not Mungo can bring birds back to life no longer matters, and the simple documentation of violent acts becomes Stuart’s primary concern. When Mungo’s thoughts return to James after the fight, full of shame for having helped perpetuate the endless cycle of sectarianism, we get a sense that Stuart has fallen back on that usual Scottish reserve about love: one that says we should not talk about love too much, or too enthusiastically, unless what we are really trying to talk about is something else.
If the promised allegory about love never quite appears, it falls to his observations of the minutiae of everyday life to show that Stuart’s talent as a writer remains in no doubt. At the back of Jocky’s pawnshop Mungo spots “a rail of wedding dresses gathering dust.” The neighbour Mrs Campbell comes to the door one morning and, “with her purpled face and yellowed eye socket, she asked Mungo how school was going.” Always down on their luck with financial woes, Mungo and his mother stare at a crisp banknote “like it had said something.” A group of schoolgirls have fringes that “shot out and curled over their bright faces like awnings on a shopfront”—while the boys wear deodorant “applied so thickly that it slithered like whipped cream beneath their shirts.” In these quiet noticings we see that Stuart’s characters are in no need of any allegorical framework. In their casual glances, their nervous tics and accidental gestures, they are more than capable of telling us their own story.