By: Lindsey Pfeffer, Columnist
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
“Young Mungo” by Douglas Stuart is a heart gripping novel about a young man, discovering and exploring his sexuality, with a view on family relationships we don’t often see. Through a back and forth time frame and different points of view, read “Young Mungo” and prepare to be devastated.
A coming-of-age tale in Scotland and set in a poor town where men are strong and provide for their families, and women are caretakers and do everything else, we find Mungo. He lives with his older sister, Jodie, and his older brother, Hamish, and sometimes with his mother when she’s not disappearing on a drinking binge.
Jodie describes Mungo as delicate, too caring and genuine for his peers. His mother sends him away to “man up” with some of her buddies from Alcoholics Anonymous. Mungo seems to be the best and worst of them simultaneously; too pretty to be handsome, not masculine enough to be a proper man.
His brother is in a gang, perpetuating the image of a man bathed in violence. Hamish serves as a perfect foil to Mungo as he slowly has to come to terms with the fact that he is gay and that the world would rather him be like his brother than how he is.
I wasn’t sure about how Mungo’s physical appearance is described; he is depicted as being pretty, with high cheekbones and a statuesque brow. Women stopped them in the street to tell his mother how beautiful he was growing up. This feels a bit too on the nose for me to turn around then and have him be soft all the way around to play into the stereotypes of gay men.
However, I do think it is a fair exploration of a gay identity. Mungo is a person outside his sexuality, and his love interest is written with just as much depth. It was a struggle for me personally to get through this book; not for lack of interest or skill, in fact, this novel is written quite well and almost poetic at times.
The themes and topics hit a bit hard, however. There’s not really a moment of levity in all the madness. Every good moment is bookended by weariness and struggle, bogged down by life and what it has in store for them. It’s almost too realistic to read for long periods.
This book really hones in on roles. What does it mean to be a man and a woman? How do those identities become more complex when looking at where and when? What does poverty look like in everyday life, and how does politics play directly into it? This story is supremely nuanced, engaging and has multiple ways of thinking whenever discussing a new topic.
I think the book is meant to show the merits of being soft and outside the norm, the flip side of being a man. It just left me feeling sad, though. There was no happy ever after, no silver lining—just reality. I don’t think that makes this a bad book necessarily, maybe just one that doesn’t exist to entertain.
The story is amazing, and I hope you give it a chance and cry along with me. However, I can’t recommend this book to anyone without being sure to warn about sensitive topics. If you don’t like reading about struggles with drinking, homophobia, gang violence, and mental illness, this book is not for you.
Rating: ⅘ stars