Masterfully written by Booker Prize-winner Douglas Stuart, this is the story of Mungo Hamilton, a 15-year-old Protestant boy living in the east end of Glasgow, Scotland, who comes from nothing. No money, little love, and lots of uncertainty and instability. His mother, Mo-Maw, is an alcoholic who takes up with men and moves in with them, temporarily abandoning her three teenage children. Mungo’s older brother, Hamish, is the father of a baby with his 15-year-old girlfriend and alternates living at home and in his girlfriend’s mother’s flat. He is a gang leader, callously sadistic, and has physically and psychologically brutalized Mungo for years, often forcing him to participate in his bloody and brutal gang fights. Jodie, Mungo’s older sister, is the only constant in his life. She is smart, she loves Mungo, and she cares for him like a mother even though she is only a year older than Mungo.
Mungo has grown up without friends, but one day he meets James Jamieson, a Catholic boy his own age with his own heartbreaking story to tell. James raises pigeons in a shanty-like doocot (dovecote) as a way to escape his otherwise bleak life. The two become friends—well, more than friends. And for the first time ever, Mungo is happy. But their love must be a deeply guarded secret, not only because they are gay but also because one is Catholic and one is Protestant.
This tightly nuanced novel has two distinct storylines adeptly woven into each other. One tells the story of Mungo’s life in the low-income housing tenements on the wrong side of Glasgow while the other tells of a weekend fishing trip his mother arranges for him to take with two of her creepy acquaintances from Alcoholics Anonymous, both of whom were recently released from prison for sex crimes. Mungo is gay, and while he has come to privately accept this, his mother thinks this fishing weekend will make a man of him. But things go terribly, shockingly, irreversibly wrong, turning what had been up to that point a coming-of-age/love story into a violent thriller.
Bonus: Do read Douglas Stuart’s short essay, “The Birdmen of Glasgow” at the end of the book that was first published in Literary Hub in April 2022. It’s a fascinating look at growing up in the east end of Glasgow (the setting of the book) and the “doo men” who raised pigeons in doocots all over the edges of the housing tenements.
One note: The novel’s dialogue is in vernacular Scottish, and most of it was easy to figure out—even though I had never seen these words before. That said, when I couldn’t decipher/translate a word, the Kindle dictionary/Wikipedia helped and failing that, Google came to the rescue.
And a warning: Violence permeates this novel, and it is graphic. Just know that before you choose to read this book.
This book truly is a literary triumph. With vivid, colorful characters and a bold, multilayered storyline that doesn’t shy from the truth, this is a remarkable and compelling novel that seared my heart and soul. It is a terribly sad and elegiac book that is emotionally devastating in places, so read with caution.