Young Mungo is one of the most visceral novels to date. Douglas Stuart’s ability to erect a world of such ferocious brutality – both raised and devastated by brittle longings – and still maintain an air of vulnerability is truly uncanny.
The story’s central violence, which stems from both poverty and Protestant-Catholic tensions, is almost jubilant. The young boys it conscripts repeatedly confuse pain and death with pleasure, and they see the suppression of emotion as the mark of a man.
Since youths and teenagers are at the forefront of the narrative, the cruelty they inflict on each other is wholly unrestrained, bringing to mind Golding’s Lord of the Flies. What’s more, this brutality is so laced into the world of Young Mungo that it takes on an almost surreal quality, further deepened with notes of savory humor.
Stuart’s initial description of Hamish’s gang is both comic and heartbreaking. The shift between the two occurs when the author begins tucking words into fists, scraping back hair and skin to expose the hairline fracture between childish rowdiness and bone-splintering savagery. The shock is so sudden that it’s nearly debilitating, and Stuart’s ability to repeat this over and over again, battering and wounding every time, leaves you reeling.
Of course, this wouldn’t be feasible if Stuart wasn’t such a masterful storyteller. His writing is deeply evocative, marked by exceptional precision. His depictions of Glasgow’s East End are never stifling, never once intrude on the novel’s other facets. In fact, they’re so subtle that they appear almost condensed, and speak primarily to the senses.
As a result, you can smell the sour, alcohol-infused sponge of Mo-Maw’s breath as it hits Mungo’s cheek, you can feel the tickle of James’ hair as Mungo noses the crack between his asscheeks. Ultimately, the story’s devotion to feeling makes for a painfully memorable, bodily reading experience.
The novel’s violence, fattened up with mentions of domestic violence and rape, also possesses a less obvious side. Its heft crushes you as you plunge deeper into Mungo’s world. There’s his alcoholic and apathetic mother, strong-arming brother and the destitution that boosts hunger. The crudeness spoiling Mungo’s reality is that much more intense because of his innate goodness and serenity.
Stuart manages to strike the perfect balance between Mungo’s purity and the merciless space he occupies, using both his beauty and virtue as a magnifying glass for the troubles he has to both witness and endure. This also elevates his forbidden love for James to new levels. You’re left so attached to the youth, so drunk on the hope that brews inside him, that the torments he has to endure are stretched out, bloated and excruciating.
Mungo is one of the most likable characters to have graced the pages of any novel, and his tenderness makes you long for another chunk of a world with him in it, however harrowing it may be. In the end, Young Mungo hooks and addicts, leaving you unable to turn away from its grey streets and granulating dreams.
Publication date: April 5, 2022 (Grove Atlantic)