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Mother’s ruin - Nicholas Lezard on the new novel by Booker-Prize-Winner Douglas Stuart

Books | By Nicholas Lezard

Douglas Stuart’s new book, Young Mungo, stars one of the great bad mothers. By Nicholas Lezard

Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize in 2020 for Shuggie Bain, the story of a boy, the youngest of three children, living in a Glasgow tenement with an alcoholic mother.

That novel recalled events in the 1980s, but had a framing device set in 1992: which is roughly where we are with Young Mungo. Mungo is the youngest of three siblings living with an alcoholic mother. Mungo is not Shuggie: and his mother is not Shuggie’s mother, who dies in Shuggie Bain.

This is not explicitly Douglas Stuart’s story, but he knows what he’s writing about: the hard, precarious life of the housing schemes, a world of endless sectarian violence and varying degrees of hopelessness; the kind of place where it is bad enough to be gay, as Mungo discovers himself to be; much worse if the boy you fall in love with is a Catholic. This, you think to yourself, is not going to end well.

Well, it does, in a way, but only after some quite spectacularly explosive violence which, after a long build-up, is enough to jangle the nerves of the stoutest reader. It starts uneasily enough, with Mungo going on a fishing trip with two men who, it dawns on you, are not to be trusted: ex-inmates from Barlinnie, Glasgow’s big jail, alcoholics, and … well, let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves. The novel is the story of how he ended up on this weekend fishing trip, and what happened there.

I hope I do not make the novel sound too grim. It is grim – there’s no getting around that – but it also has its moments of humour, even if it’s just the recorded banter of the youngsters, particularly Jodie, Mungo’s sister. She is able to see through everyone and lets them know she can – up to a point. She talks of the Modern Studies teacher, Mr Gillespie, who ‘sees it as his wee project to stir up the proleytariat in the East End while he drives his Sierra estate to the Marks and Spencer out at Bishopbriggs and spunks his wages on baguettes and Merlot… I saw him peeling a kiwi fruit in the staffroom the other week.’

Jodie seems, in a way, too good to be true: very much the voice of harsh reason that, in a household like hers, doesn’t go down well. And, when we learn what Mr Gillespie has been doing to her, we realise that, yes, she is too good to be true. Her brother Hamish is a hooligan, which is too polite a word for what he gets up to; there is a psychopathy to him that made me think of Begbie, the nutter in Trainspotting. But Hamish’s circumstances – a father at 18, with the mother 15, and with absolutely no prospects in a city that is dying all around them – has at least some kind of excuse for his violence and thievery. It gives him something to do besides fencing stolen car radios and selling freshers massively adulterated hash.

Mr Gillespie may be mocked for his left-wing pieties, but this is as vivid a picture of the Thatcher-inspired decay as you could hope to see.

As for Mungo’s mother, she is one of the great bad mothers – in her mid-thirties but ruined in drink: awesomely neglectful and selfish, leaving most of the childcare to Jodie. And yet, again, you can see how she got there. And Mungo, who has a soft heart, loves her.

This novel could have been called Mother’s Boy (a title this year already taken twice that I know of).

What keeps you going is the fact that this book is incredibly well written. Not only is its construction flawless; there isn’t a false note in the prose, which can be beautiful. Clever, too: the legend of Saint Mungo has its echoes throughout.

But the miracles attributed to him (the bird brought back to life; the fire rekindled) are here inverted. Hamish prefers to be called Ha-Ha, but he’s not funny. And Jodie has a verbal tic: in moments of stress, which rather abound in Young Mungo, she says, ‘Haaah-ha’ – always in italics, at the end of sentences that themselves contain no laughter; no possibility of laughter.

It is a world vividly and harrowingly realised, right down to the static that can be smelled off the telly if you sit close enough to it, to drown out the sound of what your mother is doing to get her next drink.

This story was from Spring 2022 issue. Subscribe Now