If Douglas Stuart’s gorgeously composed first novel, Shuggie Bain, about a doomed alcoholic mother and her devoted son assured me that tragedy-soaked Scotland was not a place worthy of a post-pandemic visit, his second novel, Young Mungo, has certainly dissuaded me completely. In this new narrative about a different family, the self-centred and mostly drunk single mother figure resurfaces, but this time the reader gets caught up in the tumultuous youth of the hapless gay son—named too ironically after a local saint, St. Mungo.
Poverty in a time of de-industrialisation and the injustices of Thatcherism, violent bullying, street fights, sexual abuse, tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the fragility of first love—all come to a head in this (at times, overwrought) narrative that is simultaneously framed by poignant descriptions of the Scottish landscape, reminding me of Terrence Malick’s movies in which nature is often evoked as remaining stunningly indifferent to the suffering we inflict on each other. Crossing timelines with expert ease, the author treads the same but brutal emotional territory here in capturing the lives of the working class and the interminable trauma that gay men must survive at every age.
by Cyril Wong