The bleakest novels are sometimes the most life affirming. Mungo Hamilton — the central character in Douglas Stuart’s new novel — is a teenager growing up in the bleak, forgotten tenements of Glasgow’s East End, where hate is even more deeply embedded than poverty and local status comes from cracking skulls or dealing speed. Sex is either violent or transactional, sometimes both; teachers are predatory; Alcoholics Anonymous gets a bigger attendance than anything but an ‘Old Firm’ — Celtic v Rangers, Catholic v Protestant — football match; and the ‘polis’ in their patrol cars (Stuart uses a sprinkling of Glaswegian street argot) are the enemy.
Amid the cracks in this concrete and granite wilderness, some shrivelled saplings manage against the odds to take seed: a sister’s love for her vulnerable brother; a boy’s love for his drink-sodden mother; another boy’s love for his ‘doos’, his racing pigeons; and the two boys’ transgressive love for each other. Transgressive because gay love brings shame and outcast status; transgressive too because any affection between a Catholic and a Protestant, across the barbed wire borders of religious bigotry, breaks all the tribal rules.
A wonderful storyteller
Douglas Stuart grew in up the Glasgow he writes about, the gay son of an alcoholic mother. He’s talked of how he was 17 when he read his first novel and knew little of Glasgow’s more fashionable West End until he was 19. He’s not from a typical literary background and his first novel Shuggie Bain was rejected 44 times before finding a publisher and winning the hugely prestigious Booker Prize. It’s now sold about 15 lakh copies.
Young Mungo is the follow-up novel. And the author has stuck to what is familiar. Both novels feature a young gay man with an alcoholic single mother living on the ‘wrong’ side of Scotland’s biggest city; indeed both these young gay men provide the titles to the novels in which their story is told. That has led to some sharp criticism that Stuart — now living mainly in New York — should break out from his childhood backstreets and extend his repertoire. Perhaps he will in time. But novelists of dinner-party-belt North London don’t get grief for setting one saga of anguish and adultery after another in Hampstead or Highgate or Golders Green, so it hardly seems just to criticise an author for bringing to life an area which is so unexplored by fine writing.
“The observation of the lifestyle and delusions of the chronic alcoholic, and how their addiction addles all around them, is told in particularly immersive fashion”
And the writing is uncommonly fine. Stuart is a wonderful storyteller. He switches deftly and successfully between two timelines — one clearly in the run up to a cathartic event and the other in its aftermath. The observation of the lifestyle and delusions of the chronic alcoholic, and how their addiction addles all around them, is told in particularly immersive fashion. Maureen, or Mo-Maw, transforms — when she is in her cups — into a cruel, unreasoning creature that her children nickname Tatty-Bogle. She gives a little love to them, and to Mungo in particular, but only until the booze runs out, or the next exploitative lover comes along.
Dreams of escape
Young gay love in a community where the only gay man who doesn’t feel shame is taunted as being a poofter and paedo, is recounted with a tender beauty. It is painful to read, simply because the sense of something really terrible and sinister looming is so overpowering.
Catholic-Protestant sectarianism in the U.K. is often seen as confined to Northern Ireland, an enclosed world which operates under its own obscure code, and even there is regarded as on the way out. But in the poorer quarters of Glasgow that visceral sense of ‘them and us’ persists, in part because few cities have suffered such a traumatic de-industrialisation, and with it a destruction of artisan traditions of self-help and community building.
The Clyde, the river that runs through Glasgow, was once the hub of British shipbuilding — my grandfather worked in these shipyards (and he kept pigeons too). That’s almost entirely gone, and so has the hinterland of coal mining, heavy engineering, steel smelting, defence sub-contracting and textile production which once gave Clydeside a measure of wealth and prestige. There has been something of an economic rebirth in recent years, but it hasn’t yet reached the East End.
Stuart has said his next novel will not be set in Glasgow. It can hardly be that he has nothing more to say about his home city, but just as Mungo’s boyfriend dreams of escape, you can see the temptation to try something new. Yet the glory of great literature — and this is a great novel — is that it takes you to people and places you would never otherwise encounter and you start, just start, to understand.
Young Mungo; Douglas Stuart, Picador, ₹699
The reviewer, a former BBC India correspondent, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.