We were eagerly awaiting this second novel by Scottish Douglas Stuart. And despite the bar he set high with Shuggie Bain (his first title), Mungo manages to produce the same tragic and irresistible enchantment that makes his books unforgettable stories.
Douglas Stuart’s Glasgow is light years away from the Victorian opulence of the city’s west. This is the East End of the 1990s, a neighborhood plagued by unemployment left over from Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of the previous decade; where gang wars between young Catholics and Protestants are Saturday night mass, and stabbings draw that famous “Glasgow smile” that has long given the city its bad reputation.
It is in the midst of this violence that Mungo grows up, a lonely 15-year-old whose gentleness disturbs the other boys – especially his older brother, who is the leader of a gang of young Protestant delinquents. His mother, who is raising her three children alone since their father’s death, is the spitting image of Shuggie Bain’s mother: absent, alcoholic and terribly egocentric. Despite everything, Mungo devotes an unconditional adoration to him.
When he falls in love with a young Catholic, he is forced to hide their relationship – condemnable from all points of view because of their difference of religion and the prevailing homophobia. But their secret won’t last long, and when his mother finds out what’s going on, she decides to send him off for a weekend of fishing with two strangers she meets at her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, supposedly to make a man”.
This lochside getaway quickly turns into a nightmare. Douglas Stuart alternately recounts the events of that fateful weekend and the months leading up to it, creating a growing tension that has us devouring the last hundred pages in one sitting. Only downside to note: the translation of the dialogues in a slang which sometimes makes them difficult to understand. But the story is so worth it that you end up overcoming this discomfort and getting caught up in the plot. It only remains to wish that the writer continue on his momentum and continue to half open this skylight on a city and an environment of which he has become one of the most talented storytellers.