Mo may have said that Helen was quirky - neurotic might have been a more accurate assessment of his partner though. Although not a first person narrative, James Kelman's latest is another dramatic monologue, although the first time he has placed a female as his main character. Helen is a single mother, working nights as a croupier in a London casino. Mo is her Asian boyfriend. In fairness to Helen, she has a lot to worry about - a damaged upbringing that has seen her older brother leave home without trace, a failed marriage, and a life of constant struggle. As usual with Kelman, his approach is tender, yet gritty and often gently amusing. He's always sympathetic to his main characters. However, if you are new to Kelman, be warned that he is a writer that is heavy on a distinctive style more than plot per se.
When Helen sees a possibly familiar face on the way home one morning, this leads her to look at her past and where she is in life. All the action takes place over the space of just a couple of days most of which involves Helen's own internal dialogue. She repeats herself, argues with herself and her worries are somewhat wearing at times, but she also addresses a lot of important issues about society and relationships. She is self-depreciating, but much of what she says or thinks is thoughtful and insightful.
The setting of Helen's work in a casino where people are gambling money that Helen can only dream of is particularly inspired.
Kelman's style may not be to everyone's taste but he's very good at what he does. At times the repetition of some of the arguments can be slightly irritating but it's highly readable. Often this "stream of consciousness" style can see long, convoluted sentences, but Kelman's approach is the opposite - lots of short sentences and most streams of thought are pursued to a logical end.
The narrative is broken by a few pieces of dialogue which feel very real. It's tempting to wish for more of these, particularly those involving her six year old daughter, but part of Helen's problem is that with her working nights, Mo working evenings in a restaurant and daughter Sophie at school, there are precious few times when all three are in the same place at the same time. In particular I'd loved to have seen more about the relationship between Sophie and Mo.
The feeling of the book can be a little claustrophobic - being locked inside Helen's head is a very busy place to be - but overall it works very well. There's just enough tension in Helen's decision to search out the mysterious face she encounters early on to carry the plot through to a poignant ending but I cannot help the feeling that I wanted more of what was going on outside of Helen's head than what was going on in it.
on 19 January 2013
If you like a claustrophobic novel with a neurotic and irritating protagonist (where nothing happens) then this is the novel for you. If you like a novel that reads like an unedited first draft, then this is for you. If you like the same thing to be repeated multiple times throughout the novel, then this is for you. And if you like strings of sentences that say the same thing but in different ways, then this, my friend, is for you.
From a stylistic point of view, this could have been half the size. From a story point of view, this should have been a quarter of the size. I know some people would argue that it's written effectively, and to a certain degree I agree. It does read like someone's thoughts, with repetitions, fragmentations, tangents, and all the other things that assail our thoughts. But I think some things are not worth doing effectively if the result is a boring, drawn-out, repetitive mess. Maybe I'm just not a stream of consciousness fan.
I saw the good reviews for this and tried to keep an open mind when I started to struggle with the terribly long-winded and frankly ridiculous opening section. But I really struggled to understand why people liked this -- what the favourable reviewers were seeing that I wasn't. I wanted to put it down with a vehemence I've rarely felt before, but I stuck with it through to the end. The majority of me wishes I hadn't. What a waste of time, effort and money.
Helen, a young croupier on the night shift at a London casino, is traveling home during the wee hours in a taxi shared with two co-workers. When they stop at a traffic light, two men, obviously homeless and perhaps drunk, arrogantly step out from the curb just as the the light is about to change and walk slowly, at their own pace, across the street, seeming to dare the stopped cars to move when the light turns green. Wild-looking, scraggy, and rather frightening, one man makes Helen pay attention, though she hunches down in the back of the taxi to avoid being seen. "Brian, it was Brian," she thinks in astonishment, "her brother Brian," whom she has not seen for twelve years.
Establishing some of the novel's main themes in this opening scene, which is more dramatic because of the violence which does not take place, author James Kelman follows Helen from that moment with "Brian" to her arrival at the home she shares with her six-year-old daughter and Mo, a South Asian man who represents "normality" to her. For the next twenty-four hours, Kelman keeps the reader inside Helen's head as she worries about life's minutiae, often with good reason. She obsesses about the past, her family life, and her brother Brian, who vanished from the family home in Glasgow without explanation. With little transition, she then thinks about the people at the casino and their flirtatiousness with her (and about a couple of her dalliances with them); about the attitudes of men toward the women in the casino and in general; and about society's limitations on women. She thinks about the anti-Americanism she sees and about the prejudice she sees against immigrants and people of other races, but then she'll suddenly switch focus and worry about Sophie at school and the fact that her teacher remarked that she "lacks enthusiasm."
Though the novel is completely focused on Helen and her interior world, it is surprisingly accessible, however wearisome Helen's anxieties may become for the reader. Kelman avoids the difficulties of coherence that traditional "stream of consciousness" presents for some readers by telling his story in unpretentious, everyday language and conversational, sometimes slangy structure. (He also omits all apostrophes, though the reason for this is unclear). Helen, like the rest of us, sometimes changes her opinions during her non-stop commentary on the minutiae of her life, and she sometimes comments on aspects of her life that she does not develop further, leaving it up to the reader to be aware that her opinions are sometimes a product of her mood and may not always represent the whole story. Some implications about Mo may pique the reader's interest, as do questions regarding Sophie, and it is not until the conclusion that the reader discovers the full impact of some of Helen's mental journeys.
Though the novel is almost plotless, it does have its excitements, especially in its unexpected conclusion. Patterned on the wild ups and downs of the casino and its games, Mo Said She Was Quirky is rare in that a male author writes successfully from a woman's viewpoint, ample proof, if that is necessary, of the universality of her pre-occupations and the novel's themes. Ultimately, she observes, that "Just being alive was a gamble. You opened a door and what was behind? You never knew."
on 10 September 2013
The book started with promise but I came close to as abandoning it after the first chapter. At times I felt the author masterfully conveyed the drudgery, anxieties and exhaustion of Helen's life but the book simply failed to hold my interest. I only ploughed on to the end because I hate not finishing a book. I didn't like the writing style and can't fathom why the author chose to write a stream of consciousness using third person. The lack of punctuation annoyed me, making the constsnt rambling more difficult and tiresome to read.
24 hours inside the mind of Helen, pretty much stream of consciousness. Helen is a croupier working nights at a London West End casino. She has a 6 year old daughter Sophie, is divorced from Sophie's father and lives with her boyfriend Mo in a tiny flat in south London.
On this day Helen is on her way home from her shift in a taxi when she is startled by the sight of a pair of homeless men walking in front of them. He seems to be Helen's brother Brian, lost to her years earlier when he walked out of their Glasgow home after a fight with their father. Unable to rest as she so desperately needs to do she is sat in the kitchen as Mo and Sophie wake, startling her from her reverie on old family photographs. As they begin their day Helen retreats to bed waking as Sophie's school day ends and Mo prepares to go to work as a waiter.
Kelman brilliantly evokes the fractured sense of a life of drugery, Helen is never rested enough or present enough to be a parent to Sophie and the shadow of her own past, unloved by her mother, abandoned by her beloved brother, negatively affects her judgement of Sophie's actions and innocence.
It is so noisy in Helen's head, things unspoken, sentences half spoken making the reader wonder and speculate. Helen worries incessantly and conversely talks herself into not acting on the things her instinct warns her are not right.
This was a book that returned to my mind over and over, the sad bleakness of Helen's life living the twilight world of a nightshift worker fighting to make ends meet, not a comfortable book but a brilliantly written one.
on 11 August 2014
I must be honest, it's not my favourite from James but one of his farts would quite honestly be better than most of the rest of the literary output these days, or any other days, actually. The man is more real than a Hemingway, no masculine posturing, more human than Bukowski. There is no pretence, no art for art's sake. This is life as it is lived, Ken Loach, Samuel Beckett, Noam Chomsky. If only pens were guns.
on 22 August 2012
I've only started reading this but the compassionate outlook of the protagonist felt like my own, and the very readable style helps - short, sharp, effective. I know I'm going to read this until the last word almost without putting it down. Some books are like that - they do not simply create a false or shallow empathy (for example saying 'I should have not gone to bed with wet hair' something all women can relate to but quite a waste of empathy in my opinion).
This for me hits 'home' by the feeling she gets when she worries if two homeless men are going to make it to the other side of the road. I suppose nobody wants to think about the old man who can barely walk for too long - because we're too scared it may happen to us. But Kelman says what others may avoid, and that's what makes him great.
on 13 October 2012
This is a very strangely written book. I don't even know how to describe the style, it was first person but that person was flimsy, vague and dare I say boring! I was surprised at the good reviews, I really tried to keep reading in case the plot ( which did sound promising) kicked in and kept my interest but I couldn't do it. I just wanted to shake the narrator and tell her to get to the point! While I understand this was meant to represent someone struggling to cope with life I found it superficial and irrelevant.
on 31 December 2012
I was a little worried when this book arrived. The quotes on the back cover are all about Kelman himself and not about the novel! Oh dear. Not a good sign. The opening scene was strong though, and that made me more optimistic. As a Kelman fan, I wanted this to be good, and I thought I knew what to expect. I read the reviews already here. And I have to say I do have some sympathy with the two star review. The weakest part of the novel is pages 5 - 20, and I freely admit, as a fan, that I was struggling a bit at exactly that point. Where was this going? Was anything going to happen at all?
Oh, and not much does happen by the way. The novel is essentially a short story extended to 200 pages. This is not a criticism.
But I did press on, and you know what, the book really started to flow. Yes, this book is stream consciousness stuff, but as we meet Mo, and Sophie, and inderectly, Helen's family and 'ex', you really do 'fall into' the character, Helen, the croupier, the single mum, the striver. Yes, she is ordinary. Yes, she is 'boring', but so am I; aren't most of us? I found her completely compelling.
Kelman's writing is smooth, and innovative. It is 'stream of consciousness' but is as skillful in this as you will ever find. The man is a creftsman, an artist. If you've read George Gissing's 'New Grub Street' then Kelman is Harold Biffen. Grammar is used and modified to serve the narrative. Sentences are left unfinished. Reading Kelman just feels different to reading anyone else.
In years gone by people writing about Kelman would focus on the use of expletives and the validity of the working class Glaswegian dialect, but Kelman was always bigger than that. There is only one swear word in this book but my God it's all te more powerful for it. Its uncompromising ordinariness is what makes it extradordinary. Perhaps that is why there are no comments about the novel on the back cover. Looking back at this review - I haven't said that much about it either! - but as Kelman fan I feel qualified to say that this was the most rewarding Kelman novel I have read since The Busconductor Hines and A Chancer (my previous favourites).
If you are new to Kelman, you may prefer an earlier novel (a bit more happens in those) or his recent and excellent short story collection 'If it is your life', but if you have bought, or are thinking about buying this, rest assured, you will be reading Kelman at his best - just don't give up on page 20!
on 4 May 2015