Review: Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Stuart has written a second pull-your-heart-out-and-stomp-all-over-it book, one that did not disappoint for a minute, even considering how much I loved Shuggie Bain.  Stuart manages to write about very ugly things so beautifully.

These two books are similar in a lot of ways, so if I can criticize anything it’s that Stuart isn’t breaking new ground here – Young Mungo is also about a sensitive young boy living in Thatcher-era Scotland, dealing with poverty, violence, and an alcoholic mother. He’s a boy who has to care for his mother much more than she cares for him. 

And yet, it didn’t feel like the same story. While Shuggie Bain is told over many years, this story unfolds in a short period of time and revolves much more around secondary characters other than Mungo’s mother. Mungo idolizes his older sister Jodie and fears his abusive brother Hamish. He also slowly develops a friendship, and then a relationship, with James, a boy who lives across the street. They live in a world where being gay will get you jailed or killed (at best, your family would never speak to you again). 

Mungo is about fifteen, and when the book begins, his mother is sending him off on a fishing/camping trip with two unknown men, to “make a man out of him”. It’s not clear what has transpired, only that Mungo is covered in bruises.  The book alternates between the present time and the recent events that led up to it. 

As with Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo is heartbreaking. Mungo has the immaturity you’d expect of a fifteen year old boy (he’s not a good student and is told he has no common sense), but he also takes on a lot of responsibility for his mother. I imagine that’s common for children of alcoholics. Too many times, Mungo and his sister are left alone, or put her to bed, or worse, they are witness to the things she does with men for something to drink. Mungo’s sister Jodie is forced to become Mungo’s caretaker when she’s only about a year older than he is. 

But while this book is very dark, Mungo also finds joy in his love for James.  Even though it seems impossible that their love can survive, as a reader I still had hope for them. And Mungo as a character is so kind and caring, but also helpless – most of the time. Actually, one of the saddest things about this book (and there are several) was how the systemic abuse by his brother has hardened Mungo. He has a violence buried under the surface that’s completely at odds with his quiet, conflict-avoiding exterior.

I listened to Shuggie Bain on audiobook, but I read this one – and I’m not sure which was the better experience. I appreciate listening to books when there’s strong dialect, as with these books, but I also find I can understand the terminology much better if I see it and can look it up as I read (for example, a cagoule is a light jacket). On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to understand dialect with a good audio narrator because you hear the emotion behind the words.

I’d rather not tell you more about the book, but I can’t recommend it enough.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy from NetGalley and publisher Grove Press.  This book was published April 5, 2022.

  6 comments for “Review: Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

  1. April 19, 2022 at 1:36 pm

    This sounds amazing and heartbreaking. I can tell already I can’t read it in public places. Thanks for the great recommendation!

  2. April 25, 2022 at 1:51 pm

    This sounds very powerful, thanks for sharing your thoughts

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