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August 3, 2012 7:50 pm
Mo said she was quirky, by James Kelman, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£14.99, 229 pages
“There’s barriers between us, the sexes,” says a character in one of James Kelman’s early stories, “Lassies are Trained That Way”. “But what you cannot deny is that we’re drawn to one another ... There’s bonds of affection. And solidarity as well, you get solidarity between us – definitely ...”
The speaker is a middle-aged man propped at a bar; the younger woman beside him looks away. Such one-sided exchanges are common in Kelman’s fictions in which women – as Sammy, the ex-convict protagonist of his 1994 Booker Prize-winning novel How late it was, how late, puts it – are “good at saying nothing”.
Kelman, often considered Scotland’s finest living writer, is known for capturing the rhythm and syntax of his characters’ speech, and for his darkly comic portrayals of lives thrown out of joint by poverty and violence. Mo said she was quirky is Kelman’s first novel to be told from a female perspective; Helen is a 27-year-old divorcee from Glasgow who shares a south London bedsit with her six-year-old daughter Sophie and Mo, a Pakistani waiter she met at the casino where she works the night shift. Mo is one of the few men who has offered Helen comfort, although even he “could be thick. He had blank spots. All men did, it was like a gender issue.”
For Helen, a woman who observes that most men “didn’t listen, they talked”, memories of her own father and ex-husband merge into a constant source of dread: “Some men could be calmed. Some couldn’t,” she notes. “This is part of the threat ... Some men made you shiver. Nobody knew what they might do, and who to.”
The narrative of Mo said she was quirky occurs over 24 hours and, true to its modernist form, is a novel in which the action is interior. But the impetus for heightened reflection is provided in the opening sequence in which Helen, travelling home at dawn from the casino in the back of a taxi with two female colleagues, notices two homeless men ahead, crossing the road with defiant slowness just as the traffic lights turn green. One of the men stops in front of the taxi, and turns to stare: “Only how he looked, wild, wild, wild-looking, wild as in – not dangerous,” Kelman writes, before breaking off Helen’s line of thought: “Brian, it was Brian, her brother Brian.”
Nothing much happens in the aftermath of this uncanny and troublingly unconfirmed moment of recognition – the taxi drives off, Helen goes home, tries to sleep, has breakfast with Mo and Sophie, sleeps, and eventually goes to work again – but the reader feels the reverberations of this apparition throughout the novel, in which the familiar teeters on the strange.
In this intensified world, Helen’s bedsit turns “from cosy to claustrophobic”; the shelves above the walk-in cupboard in which Sophie sleeps could, Helen realises, fall and crush her daughter; the landlord could fine them for putting nails in the walls (“You weren’t supposed to do anything structural,” Helen notes, hinting at a problem that goes deeper than shelving units).
Most liable to collapse are the relations between men, women and children. Helen’s thoughts return to the way people touch each other and their children, and the way such gestures might be misread: “There was nothing about his behaviour,” Helen observes of Mo’s care of her daughter. “If it ever crossed anybody’s mind ... What could they think, it was just horrible, if it was his head or neck and her legs, just a little girl, that was all she was, if her legs were wrapped round him, that was nothing...”
Like the child protagonist of Kelman’s 2008 Kieron Smith, boy , Helen is a character drawn with a rare empathy and patience; rather than tire of her compulsive thoughts, we feel her exhaustion – and her relief when those thoughts are interrupted by actual people rather than “shadows”. Kelman’s dialogue is minimal but always acute – as when Sophie wails in fright at her mother’s jokey robot voice (“That was a girl who worried; six years of age and already, already she was doing it,” Helen notes), or when, to her own surprise, Helen finds herself in tears after Mo and Sophie leave for the school run.
Kelman is also known for his polemics on subjects from colonialism to workers’ rights, and there are times when Helen seems not just a pawn in a capitalist world, controlling her punters’ fortunes with a casual spin of the roulette wheel, but the mouthpiece for her author’s politics. Such moments are forgivable, however, in a novel that manages to be as absorbing as it is uneventful. The story’s movement towards epiphany is both affecting and a confirmation of the author’s skilled accumulation of detail.
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