A bracing stream-of-consciousness tale of life on London’s lower rungs from the veteran Scottish novelist and Booker Prize winner.
Virginia Woolf’s and James Joyce’s studies of characters’ inner ramblings are a Modernist artifact for plenty of writers and readers today. But for Kelman, they remain a useful way to explore the depths of people often considered outsiders. His Booker-winning 1994 novel, How Late it Was, How Late, tunneled deep into the mind of a Scottish ex-convict, and his most recent novel, the 2008 Kieron Smith, Boy, did much the same for a pre-adolescent child. The hero of this novel is Helen, a working-class Scottish woman struggling to keep her family (and herself) together in London. On her way home from work at a casino, she sees a homeless man who resembles her estranged brother, and from there, a universe of concerns emerge: Her broken relationship with her brother and parents, her difficult 6-year-old daughter, the racism that her Muslim partner (the Mo of the title) faces and how that racism affects her. Plotwise, little happens in this day-in-the-life story: She comes home from work, spends time with Mo and her daughter, tries to sleep, then heads to work again. That simplicity, combined with the generally glancing observations Helen makes about her life, makes this novel a less substantial portrait than it could have been; Kelman eschews false drama, but in favor of a dry cinéma vérité. Still, Helen’s voice is casual, funny, earnest and a pleasure to spend time with, and in time, Kelman carefully builds her wealth of concerns into an intense can’t-take-it-anymore fury. Her fear of slipping off that last rung is real.
Though it lacks much of an arc, the novel’s brevity and lack of affect are to its credit: a gritty and wise snapshot of urban life.