Growing up in a housing estate in Glasgow, Mungo and James are born under different stars--Mungo a Protestant and James a Catholic--and they should be sworn enemies if they're to be seen as men at all. Yet against all odds, they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the pigeon dovecote that James has built for his prize racing birds.
As they fall in love, they dream of finding somewhere they belong, while Mungo works hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his big brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold. And when several months later Mungo's mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland with two strange men whose drunken banter belies murky pasts, he will need to summon all his inner strength and courage to try to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.
Imbuing the everyday world of its characters with rich lyricism and giving full voice to people rarely acknowledged in the literary world, Young Mungo is a gripping and revealing story about the bounds of masculinity, the divisions of sectarianism, the violence faced by many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.
As they neared the corner, Mungo halted and shrugged the man's hand from his shoulder.
Darker than I was expecting, Young Mungo pulled me under and forced me to experience a level of emotion I was unprepared for. Every time I stepped away from this story, it took longer to escape from the absolute heartbreak and sense of hopelessness that escalated with every moment. The small pockets of hope that only existed to plunge you further into the abyss pages later made it even worse.
As difficult as it was to read, I had to know what would happen next. The timeline alternates between what I assumed to be past and present with no pattern or label, but it was never confusing. While I sometimes preferred one storyline over the other, it wasn’t consistent, and I just wanted more of everything. The perspective could change within a chapter, and it added more emotional layers to view the same event through different filters at almost the same time.
It’s never easy to read about violence and abuse, particularly when the themes hit so close to home and mirror so many actual experiences. Mungo’s world is violent in an unavoidable way before we even begin to explore his sexuality. He’s deeply dependent on an emotionally and physically unavailable mother with addiction problems and an older sister who raises him the best she can while trying to escape the same situation. His older brother lives well outside of the law, eager to physically attack anyone from the police to his own family. He's equally willing to use emotional manipulation to get his way, and poor, sweet Mungo never stands a chance, even when he knows what’s going on. His desperation to be loved and wanted makes him a target for everyone, even his family members. And while there were moments between Mungo and James that were so blissfully pure, it was also heartbreaking to see how the masculine ideals of this time and place influenced their ability to be affectionate and caring, even in private.
Mungo had been working hard at seeing what people really meant. Mo-Maw and his sister, Jodie, were always nagging him about that. Apparently there could be some distance between what a person was saying and what you should be seeing. Jodie said he was gullible. Mo-Maw said she wished she had raised him to be cannier, less of anybody's fool. It was a funny thing to be a disappointment because you were honest and assumed others might be too. The games people played made his head hurt.
I wrote most of this review before I finished reading Young Mungo. The themes and the emotions were sitting so heavily on my chest that by the time I was 75% of the way through, I needed to take a break and write down some of my thoughts. At this point, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of optimism. There’s a deep foreboding that things will still get much worse, and every chapter refuses to shine any light or provide any hope, instead giving more evidence as to why nothing good will ever happen again.
Young Mungo is about so many things. I’ve seen it billed as a queer Romeo and Juliet or a Scottish Brokeback Mountain, but it’s more than that would lead you to expect. Going beyond the fear and trauma experienced by two very different gay teens in the early '90s, it delves deep into the effects that socioeconomic and cultural expectations have on masculinity and how toxic and harmful this can be.
I want to take any shred of hope I can from the last page, but by the end, it feels like too little too late, and my heart hurts for Mungo and James.
Everything Mungo does to protect himself only proves to make things worse, and an inability to be honest only forces more lies and harm. Addiction, abuse, poverty, hunger, isolation - so many factors make Mungo and his abusers a product of their environment, and Stuart does not shy away from holding each of them responsible. It’s why this book feels so heavy and why I can love Mungo and admire the beauty and the tragedy of the writing while hating the story and how terrible it made me feel.