A Night to Remember: A Review of Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo
Review by Fleur Pieren
As I was looking at the stack of books piled in my bedroom window – the luxury of arranging my ever-growing collection in a Pinterest-worthy aesthetic has long been thrown out this exact window – I decided that, one, I needed to get a handle on my impulse buying habit; two, I had to choose what book I was going to read first if I ever wanted to make my way through the pile in this lifetime; and, three, that Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart would be a good fit for the job.
After a year of not living up to my reputation as the household’s insatiable bookworm, it was time to end the dry spell. I went from reading no books at all, to devouring a handful of titles in the span of only two weeks. Eager to keep up the momentum, I picked up a book that had been relegated to the window’s literary purgatory since May of this year. There was something peculiar about this one that might have instigated me to choose it without much deliberation. I reached over to inspect it. Spurred on by the book’s titillating cover – a picture of two men mid steamy make out session – I quickly flipped through it and landed on its title page. There it was, just like I remembered it. The out-of-place message – jotted down in thick black marker, only exacerbating its illegibility – reminded me why I hadn’t given up on this book yet.
Distracted eyes turned towards the corner of the room where I was sitting, as I shuffled in my seat. I had been sitting in the same upright position for this past hour, paralysed by the fear of activating my chair’s relentless squeak. The first interview was almost over. I had not heard of either author present tonight but, judging by the audience turnout and the volume of questions, they seemed to be a big deal. “Thank you, Jennifer,” said a beaming attendee, who had been honoured with asking the author her final question of the night. The older lady nodded satisfactorily at Jennifer Egan’s answer, thereby alerting the interviewer that tonight’s first of two book promotions had come to an end. I carefully stretched out my limbs, they had gone painfully stiff due to a prolonged lack of motion, as other audience members started talking to each other in hushed voices or moved their way to the bathroom. Those who remained silent and seated were looking at the stage in anticipation. Several minutes had passed and the second author ascended the stage confidently, expectant eyes following his every move. The interviewer welcomed Douglas Stuart. He expressed his gratitude at the author for stopping by this event, organised by the International Literature Festival in Utrecht, during the promotional tour of his newest novel Young Mungo. Stuart, in turn, introduced himself to the crowd, who was regarding him with a palpable sense of admiration. And with these initial niceties out of the way, the second interview of the night had commenced.
The story started off in the middle of the action, leaving the reader fumbling to fill in the scene’s withheld circumstances for themselves. It isn’t a surprise, then, that it also took me some time to acquaint myself with the novel’s characters. This is the story of Mungo Hamilton, which probably won’t come as a shock, since, you know… his name is in the title. Initially, Mungo is similar to a background character within his own narrative, “a distracted little boy … given to worrying and wandering and fidgeting …”. Throughout the first few chapters, he doesn’t appear to have outgrown these qualities. In the rugged, patriarchal world of Glasgow’s Protestant working class in the eighties, where masculinity’s rules are dangerously strict, the benevolent Mungo falls by the wayside in a painfully obvious way. He is consistently upstaged by his older brother Hamish, or Ha-Ha – a caricature of traditional heterosexual masculinity – and his older sister Jodie – a bright, compassionate girl who seems to single-handedly take care of the entire tenement. But Stuart didn’t title this book ‘Young Hamish’ or ‘Young Jodie’ for a reason. If Mungo starts off as a supporting character, he gradually demands the spotlight when the familiar cast of characters is, ironically, expanded with one more: James, a kind Catholic boy burdened by social expectations, who tends to a doocot in his spare time. The two boys gradually become each others’ safe haven, somewhere they can be themselves and “It was a lovely place for two boys to be: honest, exciting, immature.” Stuart manages to tie the beginning of Mungo’s arc beautifully to its resolution: Mungo always “loitered a while and was happy … to be unobserved”, but by the end “Mungo knew what he was going to do, where he was going to go. The only place he would ever want to be.” He was part of an ensemble of characters that were headed to an obscure, loveless future; he becomes the only one to find a love that holds the irresistible promise to change his life.
The boisterous sound of clapping awoke me from my daydream. Prying my eyes away from the figure on stage, I tried to gain a bearing on my surroundings. The imposing room looked nothing like the one I had been in for this past hour. My chair’s sudden shriek cut through the thunderous clapping. Eyes flicked in my direction again, this time annoyed as well as distracted. People were eagerly raising their hands, hoping to be noticed by the interviewer while he scanned the crowd for any questions. Guiding Stuart’s gaze to one such prominent hand shaking from strain, the grateful audience member lowered his tired arm. Disbelief set in as I timidly adjusted myself on the chair. For these past hours, I’d been tucked away behind a large table crammed with colourful paperbacks and sturdy, eye-catching hardcovers. Hours of careful preparation – hauling a dozen boxes filled with books from Savannah Bay to the current location, decorating the small space with as many accessories and books as we could manage, and discarding the evidence that betrayed our frantic efforts – would be callously undone in a couple minutes. But for this past hour I had been somewhere else. I hadn’t been in Utrecht as an event volunteer for its renowned feminist bookshop. No… I had been in the front room of a tenement building in Glasgow, swept up in the daily life of the fifteen-year-old Mungo, guided by the steady, warm and commanding voice of Douglas Stuart. Looking around the real room, this time, it’s my glossy eyes that meet those of the others; we collectively recover from our daze.
The novel’s blurb, which I had quickly re-read before starting, had informed me of a turning point in the story that would have catastrophic consequences. It warned me that the Mungo I would have gotten to know, up to that point, would cease to exist. A fishing trip with two strange men from which he needed to escape and an unspeakable punishment. The short text failed to elaborate more than that. Shaking off my initial confusion, I patiently made my way through the first chapter, cheerful as I started to get a handle on the unfolding events. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself grasping at a second set of straws with the onset of the second chapter. This pattern would repeat over and over; the story was toying with me. It was slowly inching towards that one dooming event. I was excruciatingly aware that, whatever was coming during the fishing trip, would be disastrous for the character that I was starting to get attached to. Every time I thought Stuart would release me from this foreboding torment, he would yank me away from the action to a whole new scene. There were much needed moments where he granted me some leniency, a time to relax my tense muscles which had been scrunched up in anticipation, as the romance between Mungo and James flourished from “timid tenderness” into comfortable intimacy. I had even started to lose myself in the joys of their young love, when this fake sense of security was wickedly ripped apart. Violence attacked Mungo from all sides. His world would never be the same.
People were walking towards the exit, happiness illuminating their faces. I cleared up the handful of books that had survived the chaos unscathed, the table now an empty echo of the previous display, and I was weighed down by a slowness not unlike that of a hangover. The round of questions had passed me by unnoticed, and the ensuing book sale and co-signing session had been too hectic for me to catch my breath. We pulled out the books that my colleague and I had held back for ourselves and eagerly divided them between the two of us. It was now or never. Douglas Stuart was talking with the second-to-last person in the queue, I could scoot in unobstructed. My colleague swiftly followed me as I joined the line. I was still practicing the short script in my head when it abruptly turned from a thought into speech. I looked at him expectantly. He smiled warmly at me, expressing gratitude for my help throughout the night. Playing it cool, I nonchalantly slid the book towards him on the table. He expertly opened it to the title page and picked up the black marker by his side. He didn’t need to be reminded of my name. “That isn’t surprising”, I joked, “because you can ask any Dutch girl her name and, chances are, it will be Fleur”. A polite smile flickered across his face. He pressed the marker against the paper and I found myself athrill with exhilaration.
I was overwhelmed by a cathartic sadness. The boy that I had grown fond of had been forcibly and aggressively forged into a new character in the span of only a couple paragraphs. In a haunting paradox, “he had not been man enough; now he was too much”. Mungo was no longer the person he had been before this fateful weekend. Sorrow clinging to every bone in my body, I felt relieved when the last chapter offered me a kernel of hope. I treasured every encouraging word, relishing in the fact that Mungo might’ve gotten his happy ending. My heart started beating faster as the figure across the road came into Mungo’s view. It was the exact person he had escaped for. I felt a content hollowness overtake me when my eyes rolled over the final sentence. I had the sudden urge to go through the novel again, to re-live every scene with the knowledge I had now. Because that was the wonder of Young Mungo. Every page played out like a picture in my head; every word shone a new light onto a scene that had been unfolding right in front of my eyes. Even something as simple as a smile is treated delicately: “It was the first smile James had given him that day. It was small and it was crooked but it gave off more brightness than the doocot skylight above them.” Stuart’s writing appears deviously simple, but this is a disservice to his masterful and careful understanding of his story, his characters, and, not least, his language.
Douglas Stuart holds every facet of this novel in a very high regard. His respect for the world he built, one that he himself is intimately familiar with, shines through every sentence; and he trusts me that I, in turn, will treat it with the utmost care. Mungo’s story made me cry, laugh, shudder, swoon, worry, and cheer. It has wrung itself into my heart and there it will stay, a tender memory.
Douglas and Mungo,
I won’t ever forget you, too.
Fleur Pieren is currently a student of the MA Literature Today, and has an academic background in English literature and Gender Studies. She is particularly intrigued by the representation of femininity and masculinity in pop culture, and loves to squeeze in as many commas and adjectives in one sentence as she can. When she’s not dreaming of being an editor at a British publishing house, she’s anxiously preparing for a potential PHD. In her free time, she is an events volunteer for the feminist bookshop Savannah Bay in Utrecht
- Stuart, Douglas. Young Mungo. London: Picador, 2022.