DOUGLAS STUART’S new novel, a searing follow-up to his award-winning debut, Shuggie Bain, continues with his earlier themes: poverty, homosexuality, violence, and alcoholism. Mungo, a fatherless fifteen-year-old living in a Glasgow tenement with his family—including his older sister and brother, Jodie and Hamish, and Mo-maw, their frequently absent alcoholic mother—struggles to survive in a Protestant environment that rejects who he is.
The novel opens with Mungo, who’s named after a saint, slowly walking away from his tenement flat with two men he doesn’t know. Gallowgate and St. Christopher have been chosen by his mother to take him on a trip to teach him “manly pursuits.” The traumatic incidents of this trip are interspersed with chapters detailing the painful events in Mungo’s life that led up to it. As Mungo attempts to reckon with his homosexuality and the toxic masculinity surrounding him, which is typified by his older brother Hamish, Mungo befriends a Catholic named James. Their burgeoning love is threatened by the prevailing sectarian hatred between Protestants and Catholics.
The duality of love and abuse infuses the narrative, with each chapter building on its damage and intensifying its impact. The motivations and emotions of each character are portrayed vividly, so that their brokenness makes each both victim and survivor. The story is imbued with a powerful sense of place and crackles with Glaswegian dialect. The novel exemplifies the shame and pride that coexist in Mungo’s world and in his own identity. With a foreboding sense of tragedy, the novel turns redemptive when Mungo accepts himself and his own agency.