I lay in bed late one night trying to figure out how to start a review of James Kelman's Mo said she was quirky (Other Press). I composed a couple of lines in my head, shuffled the words around, trying to rework the sentences into something usable. Then my thoughts splintered and stuttered, looping back in on themselves. Anxieties ebbed and flowed before, eventually, my concerns about the review and everything else faded as sleep came.
As it happens, those anxious moments are central to the book: "When people are tired, everything goes everywhere, mingling and merging, everywhere and anywhere, just scurrying about with no rhyme or reason," Kelman writes.
In the latest from the Man Booker Prize winner, we occupy the headspace of Helen, a young Scottish emigrant in London. At the beginning of the novel, Helen thinks she may have seen her long-lost brother on the cab ride home from her job dealing cards at a casino. Two homeless men cross the street in front of her cab. As they pass she thinks the tall, skinny one could be her brother. When she arrives at her cramped home, she tries to calm her mind before going to bed, and we get all the looping, wandering, and repeating that accompanies the bit of insomnia before sleep-especially when trying to sleep after a night shift.
Helen's thoughts go everywhere, and quickly. Apostrophes are omitted in conjunctions, as if the thoughts came so fast that Kelman just didn't have time to add them in. This isn't the only punctuation idiosyncrasy. Quotation marks are forsaken in dialogue and commas are used conservatively. Strangely enough, though, there are quite a few semicolons lurking around in there: "[A]ll these things and in her mind too all just going round and round. Her head lolled, her eyes open; only the tiredness, but not wanting to go to bed, she didn't want to."
The book covers 24 hours in Helen's life, from the end of one night shift to the next. and the thoughts never stop racing. Simple sentences and vocabulary make the book easy to read, and eventually the disjointed repetition of Helen's thoughts take on a rhythm of their own. Her thoughts often echo at the end, providing emphasis. "Just being alive was a gamble. You opened a door and what was behind? You never knew. Everybody took risks. Helen too, she had done. Never again. Never. Never never."
The stream-of-consciousness style is not new to Kelman. However, this is the first time the Scottish author has written from a female viewpoint. This is particularly ambitious given how much of Helen's narrative involves the way men and women act and relate to each other. Aside from a few words that stand out, including an inconsistent and not entirely convincing use of the verbal tic "like," I did not spend too much time thinking about the man penning the thoughts of a young working woman. Kelman's portrayal of the anxious thought process is real enough to pull the reader in to Helen's world.
The central theme of the book is relationships-and not just those between men and women. Helen thinks about her mother, whom she has never been that close with, and her deceased father, who favored Helen over her brother. She worries about her 6-year-old daughter, her safety and ability to cope with being uprooted from Glasgow. She thinks about her abusive ex and also about her current live-in boyfriend, the titular Mo, and the looks he gets as an Asian man dating an "English woman with her own child." And most of all, she thinks about her brother, who she thinks is now homeless in London. She wonders if he is sick, if he is able to take care of himself.
At times the portrayal can feel frighteningly real. To be stuck inside someone's head, listening to her anxieties repeat and repeat and repeat, can be an intense experience, and while Kelman's use of the third person offers a modicum of separation, it isn't much. Very little of the book deals with life outside of Helen. Action, dialogue, and description are close to nonexistent. This can seem tedious, but the tension of "is he or isn't he her brother?" offers enough of an initial push to see the reader through the fast-reading 300 pages.
The novel is at its best when portraying the small bits of life, the day-to-day anxieties, and ruminations about the past and the future. Yet the end of the book finds Helen more and more harried as she seeks her brother, almost as if Kelman feels pressure to add more drama, to offer some sort of resolution. There is a final push of action, but I could do without it. It takes Helen from a relatable everywoman to someone "mad, simple and straightforward." Perhaps Kelman is interested in what makes people crack, but I find the events preceding the cracking-up to be more interesting. While this doesn't negate what comes before, it does sell the novel short, keeping the book from being within reach of greatness.
James Kelman will read at the Ivy Bookshop on May 7 at 7 p.m.