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6 April 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Douglas Stuart, Scholastique Mukasonga, Anna Qu and Margaret Willes

Young Mungo by Stuart, The Barefoot Woman by Mukasonga, Made in China by Qu and In the Shadow of St Paul's Cathedral by Willes.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Sophie McBain, Christiana Bishop and Michael Prodger

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Picador, 400pp, £16.99

The protagonist of Douglas Stuart’s new novel has a lot in common with that of his Booker Prize-winning debut. Mungo, like Shuggie Bain, is a teenage boy who tends to see the good in everyone, despite the painful realities of his upbringing. This book too is set in 1980s working-class Glasgow, and Mungo, like Shuggie, has an alcoholic mother who is often in need of saving from the brink of despair. When the 15-year-old has a reluctant sip of beer I found myself taking a sharp inward breath: “He had seen the awful sadness it contained, just beneath the happy foam.”

This is a grim, graphic book: within just a handful of pages there are two instances of rape and an attempt at miscarriage via a punch to the stomach. But Stuart keeps the possibility of a happy ending close. Here hope comes in the form of James, with whom Mungo falls in love, though of course their estate won’t take kindly to a gay relationship. Stuart’s dialogue is brilliantly thick with Glaswegian slang, his descriptions vivid and his characters convincing. But the story feels too familiar. I want to read a Douglas Stuart novel that breaks out of the mould the author has forged for himself.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trs Jordan Stump
Daunt Books, 153pp, £9.99

Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother Stefania told her that should she die, her daughters must cover her body in a pagne. “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen,” she warned. The Rwandan novelist and memoirist was living in France when Stefania and 36 other relatives were murdered during the 1994 genocide. Mukasonga could not fulfil her mother’s wishes; she does not even know what happened to her body. The Barefoot Woman is a different act of filial devotion: a rich retelling of the author’s village childhood that takes up the wild imagery of the stories Stefania told to her children each night.

The reader is transported: I could see the fields of sorghum, smell the woodfire, feel my own bare toes stub against stones in the dark. There is a terrible poignancy to each scene: we know how this world ends, though Mukasonga mentions only briefly the cataclysmic violence that will follow. At the centre of everything is Stefania, village matchmaker and herbal healer. Stefania identified hiding places for her children, mapped out routes for them to flee and buried provisions for them along the way. She did all she could to protect them. It was not enough.
By Sophie McBain

Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labour by Anna Qu
Scribe, 224pp, £14.99

The essayist Anna Qu was seven and living with her loving grandparents in Wenzhou, China, when her mother suddenly reappeared in her life to take her to New York City. Even as a child Qu knew that the five years her mother had spent working in the US without her was a sacrifice, made for the benefit of both of their futures. When they arrived in Queens, however, their familial bond was not strengthened but entirely shattered as Qu was confronted with her mother’s cruelty. She was instantly put to work, first as a maid in their home and then as a factory worker in her stepfather’s sweatshop; that is, until Qu confided in a school counsellor.

With quick, vibrant prose, Qu’s memoir is absorbing and disturbing in equal measure. The narrative is laced with grief for her lost childhood, but also gratitude for her mother’s strength to have not only immigrated to the US alone, but then to have returned for her. Their relationship is troubled, but never entirely without love. As Qu movingly reflects: “Sacrifice is in every generation of our family. I am no exception from the hardship, and we are all her children.”
By Christiana Bishop

In the Shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: The Churchyard That Shaped London by Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 320pp, £25

When standing in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, the temptation is to look up at Christopher Wren’s dome. But, as the former National Trust publisher Margaret Willes writes in her fascinating account of the building’s environs, it was at ground level rather than in the spiritual heights that history played out.

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For centuries the churchyard was a public thoroughfare and place of ceremonial processions; at Paul’s Cross, in what is now Paternoster Square, radical preachers voiced religious controversies; and it was in the buildings surrounding old St Paul’s that the publishing and bookselling trades were founded, plays performed and coffee-house culture established. Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys spent time there, as did a “notorious baggage” named Moll Cutpurse who did penance there, while in 1601 a horse called Morocco was spirited to the top of the cathedral steeple where his owner rode him round and round. Willes handles her anecdotes and characters with skill and discrimination to show how the silence of prayer long rubbed shoulders with the brouhaha of dispute and commerce.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: The marriage delusion]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special