Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

“Families dont finish. You run away but they catch you up. Families are ghosts. Presences.”

James Kelman’s, Mo Said She Was Quirky (and it’s a great title, btw) begins with a young croupier named Helen, riding home in a taxi after working the night shift. As the taxi approaches  the traffic light, Helen notices two homeless men about to cross the road. A quiet drama takes place–part of it in Helen’s mind, and completely unnoticed by her two workmates, as Helen speculates whether the men will make it across the road before the lights change. There’s tension in the air. Helen and the taxi driver both feel it as this  is a moment when the incident could explode into something ugly. The homeless men move on and moment passes.

The incident is significant for Helen. While watching the homeless men, she initially, through interior dialogue, notes the awkwardness of riding in a taxi “with poor people seeing her, as though she was rich, she wasn’t.” But then as she watches the two men, one of them seems familiar, and in a split second, she is convinced that this is her brother, Brian. While the other two women giggle about the condition of the two homeless men and the desire to take their picture, Helen sinks into the knowledge that her brother–she last saw him twelve years ago– now lives on the London streets. The meaningless, cruel chatter of the two workmates fades into background noise as Helen grapples silently with the brief vision of the homeless men.

Mo said she was quirkyThe novel follow’s Helen’s life for the next 24 hours. She returns home and begins searching through old family photos as if she will find answers to unsolved questions. We learn that Helen, originally from Glasgow, now lives with her restaurant worker boyfriend Anglo-Pakistani Mo and her six-year-old daughter. To Helen, Mo is “like normality,” against some pathological family relationships, including Helen’s mother’s general “lack of interest.” Mo and Helen met in Glasgow but moved to London partly to escape her violent, bullying ex. While to Helen, Mo is a sanctuary, there are problems here too.

The rest of the novel is approximately 24 hours in Helen’s life told through interior monologue with a stream of consciousness narrative. I am not fond of stream of consciousness. Although I recognize its possibilities and its cleverness, it’s a narrative form that can be hard on the reader. In the case of Mo Said She Was Quirky, the stream of consciousness narrative isn’t particularly hard to follow.

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. Oh my god the thought, the very thought! The one she went with made her shiver. Even thinking about him. It was true. Who made her feel like that? Nobody. Oh how he looked at her, he just had to, even away over, he would be standing away over and she would be dealing and perhaps somebody asking for a card and she happened to see him, just glancing across. Then he was gone; she looked and she didnt see him. She couldnt stop thinking about him, he just arrived and she saw him and then he was away and she couldnt think of anything else. That was so against the rules. You could act ordinary in the job but when it came to men it took away and it took away your concentration, oh no, then their hands were in the till and you were out of a job.

Helen is a very ordinary person, and by this I mean she is a single mother, overworked and underpaid, living in poverty in a flat not much bigger than a large dog kennelit’s so small that Helen’s daughter, Sophie sleeps in a modified cupboard.

There’s a brief affair in the past with the mysterious married Mr Adams which served as a lever to spring Helen from her miserable marriage:

Knowing Mr Adams let her see about her ex what she didn’t want in life. Him! It didnt affect their relationship because that was already finished. Only she hadnt told him. She knew and he didnt. How many times lying there beside him in the dark and he was awake, and she could have said it to him, she could have. And she knew he was awake. Oh she knew alright because when he swallowed. People dont swallow, not if they are asleep. He was wondering if she was awake. She hardly breathed. She wouldnt have, not for him, never. Her mind could go any place. She was able to lie there and think it, whatever it was, whatever she wanted to think, and he was powerless because he could not stop her brains. He would if he could but he couldnt. Except if he nudged her. Horrible.

Stream of consciousness allows access to an unfettered flow of thoughts without inhibition or social constraints. It’s a narrative that is especially rewarding in its unleashing of a rich, inner life. However, in Helen’s case, her inner life is fraught with concerns, worries, bad memories and anxieties. It’s not very exciting, and it becomes almost claustrophobic and wearing at some points. Yet at the same time, there’s an undeniable pull to the sincerity of Helen’s thought processes. Helen emerges as a very real character, the sort of woman you might pass on the street and not notice, and yet Kelman’s tickertape narrative reveals her isolation and the extraordinarily difficult inner life of an average working, single mother.

On a final note, all apostrophes for contractions appear to be absent. At first, I thought that this was an issue with my kindle version, but the print copy is the same. It’s a tic I found annoying.

review copy



Filed under Fiction, Kelman James

10 responses to “Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

  1. I tend to like stream of consciousness fiction. Though relatively common it is still a nice change of pace from the more conventional writing which in the end will likely always consist of the majority of my reading.

    I would guess that the claustrophobic feeling that you allude to is intentional.

  2. I like stream of consciousness but I think it’s a form that works well with gifted writers. Average writes can’t afford it, it doesn’t go well with a weak style.
    Helen sounds like a modern Jeanne, the heroin of A Life by Maupassant.

  3. I struggled with Kelman’s Booker Prize winner and I am sure I would have the same problem with this one from the excerpts you have chosen. I don’t think it is so much the stream of consciousness aspect as the author’s deliberate choice of choppy, discordant narrative construction. His characters tend to be difficult enough to appreciate (and I realize that that too is deliberate and more power to him) but when I have to fight the prose as well I find the end result just isn’t worth the trouble it takes to get there.

  4. Emma, Brian and Kevin: I think Kelman is an experienced, talented enough writer that everything here is deliberate and effective (as you point out Kevin). Whether or not the end result is ‘worth it’ is up the reader. I’ve read professional reviews that call this book brilliant and others that found it drab. While I appreciated the skill and the technique, I can’t say that I found this gripping. It was at times a bit of a slog to be inside Helen’s mind.

  5. Jonathan

    From your review it certainly sounds interesting. I read a few Kelman books in the ’90s and enjoyed them and I thought of him as a Scottish Selby. I liked the way Selby dropped things like commas, apostrophes, speechmarks etc. but made the prose understandable and enjoyable just by the power of his writing. Kelman did the same and his characters had strong Glaswegian accents which added a certain grittiness to the prose. He seemed more at home with short stories than novels though, and I seem to remember a story called ‘The Burn’ being particularly good.

    Is the whole novel ‘stream-of-consciousness’? I can see how that could be a bit of a slog, though hopefully rewarding. Personally, I’ve always liked writers that develop a distinctive style; when it’s done well I find I can read just about anything by them – Céline comes to my mind in this respect as I’m sure even his shopping lists were works of art.

    • There are occasional passages in the third person: “Helen was clutching her bag…” or “she wanted to run” for example, but the rest is in her head.
      I am loathe to land on the issue of “taste” as it seems a bit of a cop out, but that’s about the best I can do. I’ve seen reviews, as I mentioned, by people who loved this and thought the book is a work of genius. I’m not arguing that or denying it–just saying sometimes books that are cleverly written might not be the ones you end up loving. if you get my drift.

      If you are already a fan of Kelman (and it sounds as though you are), then you’ll probably enjoy it.

  6. I’m not too sure I would like this but I do love the title.

  7. I have a different unread Kelman, so won’t be getting this for a while. Which is a shame, as it sounds just up my street.

    The apostrophe thing is a technique used by Cormac McCarthy also, and irritates me. It’s false. Why lose apostrophes, but keep commas and full stops? It looks like you’re breaking a certain formality and so creating a stripped back prose, but it’s deeply artificial. The novel is of course inherently artificial, but this is an obvious artificiality.

    Still, I loved the quotes, I love the concept and the title is as you say great. Perhaps I should read my copy of The Busconductor Hines so that I can get to this.

    • I don’t ‘get’ the dropping of certain things: commas, apostrophes etc. They’re there for a reason, and I think it’s annoying when writers don’t use them. It’s a turn off for me and to be honest if I know an author does this ahead of time, chances are I won’t read the book. Zadie Smith dropped speech marks for NW and it just made it harder to read. What’s the point?

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