James Kelman is famously not a man fond of making concessions — whether to bourgeois interviewers, literary fashions, traditional punctuation or his own readers. Sure enough, his latest novel comes in familiar form: a continuous, chapterless slab of interior monologue from a working-class Glaswegian struggling against the un-remitting toughness of what a character in his last book of short stories called the ‘greatbritishsocialsystem’. True, the protagonist here does represent one departure from the norm, by being a woman — thereby allowing Kelman to add another layer of oppression to the usual mix. Even so, the only thing remotely quirky about Mo said she was quirky is the title.
The plot (as ever with Kelman, a word to use loosely) concerns 24 unspectacular hours in the life of Helen, who’s left Glasgow to escape her unnamed but apparently horrible ex-husband. Now, she’s holed up in a tiny south London flat with a Muslim boyfriend Mo and her six-year-old daughter Sophie, who for reasons of space sleeps in a cupboard.
In fact, the book begins with a misleading burst of incident. Helen is cabbing home from the casino where she works through most of the night when she sees a man who might be her estranged and homeless brother, Brian. But after that, what she mostly does is think.
Given that night work makes Helen permanently exhausted, her thoughts aren’t always startling. (‘London was — what was London? Big.’) For the same reason, they go round in even tighter circles than usual for Kelman’s characters: anxiety about Sophie, wary acknowledgment of Mo’s good qualities, mournfully affectionate memories of Brian — although she does also find room for a few rather well-informed denunciations of global capitalism. Suspicious of cheeriness in other people, she avoids it almost completely herself, with a worldview that believes ‘the best part of life is birth, from there it is downhill, downhill all the way!’
Mo said she was quirky, then, probably won’t feature on many lists of perfect beach reads this summer. Like many of Kelman’s works, it inevitably brings to mind that Wodehouse one-liner about the lack of difficulty in distinguishing a Scotsman with a grievance from a ray of sunshine. And yet, there’s no denying that, in its almost perversely uncompromising way, this is a brilliant novel.
In what sounds like another direct challenge to the reader, Helen decides at one point that she ‘hadnt (sic) done anything with her life, not of interest to other people.’ Happily, though, this is not true. Kelman takes us so deeply into her anxious but never quite defeated self that we end up not only liking her a lot, but also rooting for her, especially whenever she allows herself the odd moment of quickly-recanted hope.
The result is a winningly humane, even compelling portrait of the kind of person who rarely shows up in literary fiction — unless of course it’s by James Kelman. The man clearly isn’t mellowing with age. Nonetheless, it’s hard to think of any other contemporary novelists with either the sheer cussedness to attempt a book like this, or the ability to pull it off so perfectly.