The opening line of Anna Karenina - "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" - still rings true even in our day and age. When the protagonist of James Kelman's new novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky, thinks of her family as happy, her recollections start resembling everyone's dream of domestic bliss; at other times her unhappiness appears to be unique, almost impossible to pin down.
Helen is a young woman from Glasgow living in London with a small daughter and a partner. The narrative follows the heroine's rambling thoughts in minute detail, putting you in mind of Molly Bloom's monologue, updated for the 21st century yet recognisable in many of its registers. It may not be as fluid - not so much a stream as a trickle of consciousness - but it's extremely eloquent.
The similarity with Ulysses is stressed by the novel's structure: it is set over one day, which starts in the small hours, as Helen leaves work after a night shift, and makes a full circle before culminating in a powerfully symbolic scene.
Helen comes across as what has become known in contemporary literature as a hindered narrator, or a voice that can be described as - yes, the "quirky" of the title is the word. It takes you a while to realise what makes her one; even as you approach the end you are not quite sure what's the matter with her - there are a lot of hints, but nothing is spelled out in full. That she has always had an unusually vivid imagination is one reason why Helen's thoughts should be viewed through a magnifying glass at a large distance, so that everything looks smaller and upside down.
This warped perception adds to the reading experience, making you complicit in what's going through her head - and she drifts from domestic worries, inevitable for someone living in a tiny flat with a cupboard converted into a child's bedroom and a washing machine threatening to bring down the kitchen when it spins, to thoughts of men, be it her dominating ex or gamblers in the casino where she works: "me me me, the men all smiling together oh so mature, these men who really are boys, little boys and their egos, the women belong to them".
Insecurity is also present in the most prominent motif in Helen's inner monologue, that of her family: her father who died relatively young, her mother she has never felt close to and, above all, her brother, the black sheep who has been out of touch with everyone for a long time. His spectral appearance in the opening scene sets the tone for the whole novel, making Helen go over the past again and again. We are never told directly what - if anything - happened between the siblings. You start suspecting the worst: was Helen a victim of domestic abuse? Or merely a girl attached to her father, traumatised by his hostility towards her brother? Were her early relationships disastrous because of what she had been through? Does her distress result from her inability to make sense of the events of her past? Is she fixated on her trauma? Does she, "not a real Glasgow woman" by her own admission, feel displaced in the mixture of multiculturalism and xenophobia that is modern England?
All this sounds too academic, too deterministic for Helen, who is not one for systematic analysis, referring to herself as "Mrs Foolish" every time yet another worry strikes her. Speaking as a daughter, a mother, a lover, she tries to be objective, yet occasionally slips into horror stories - one might say, of a tabloid variety: " … wicked stepmothers and ogrish stepfathers. Why was it always them who were monsters? Why not the natural parents? In real life that is who it was."
At times she swings the other way in her ruminations, approaching the style of a liberal broadsheet: "People had mega disgraces, some had minor. […] Society sees it as disgrace but they dont. Families can be sick, so can society." Passages where you stop and ask yourself whether this is something you've read in today's paper are many, and the readiness with which you pick them out of the text makes them even more alarming.
One of the principles of therapy is that patients talk about themselves, thus getting rid of their troubles. From this point of view, Kelman's book is a therapy session turned inside out: following the narrative, the reader becomes more and more absorbed in the heroine's world; her dramas may not always be completely understood - not even by herself - but you somehow manage to get to the bottom of them.
This idea would have never been realised without a special trick. Kelman, who won the Booker Prize in 1994, finds it in the language he uses, which at times seems to follow its own rules. The distinctive style includes feverish hiccups, missing apostrophes, unfinished sentences followed by a new paragraph:
"And Dad smiling to her as if she was on his side, and she wasnt; she wasnt on anybody's side; it just wasnt fair, and when she got older too
Brian was a good brother and she loved him."
Psychological suspense works brilliantly in the novel: you know something has happened, otherwise why would Helen keep reassuring you and herself: " … if anything had happened, she was only little. Nothing had happened anyway, what had happened? nothing", and that we are heading for some horrible revelation.
When it doesn't come, at least not in any open form, the suspense grows, becomes almost unbearable, so in the end it boils down to your emotional endurance against Helen's. Will she be the first to break down? Her story remains punctuated with the tiniest dots, as you strain to hear something definite, before giving up and relying on your gut instinct as a reader - a wonderful feeling for any fiction lover.
Is Helen paranoid about her daughter's safety because of something that happened to them personally, or simply because of the way we live now? Her partner, Mo, when out with the six-year-old Sophie, has to carry with him not only an ID, but also a photo of the three of them, as a proof of his innocence in case he is challenged, a Pakistani man with a white child.
All this, recounted by Helen as yet another example of crime awareness gone mad, sounds both sinister and sickening. It cannot help bringing to mind recent headlines screaming about a paedophile ring in the north of England, run by Asians who groomed white girls - a topic that has been hotly discussed by the British public, producing an alarmingly large number of racist responses.
"English woman white woman, the usual, but so offensive, so very offensive. The oglers, Muslim men any men, they dont even know they are doing it". Despite not being able to articulate things entirely seamlessly, Helen is convinced that white and non-white are two sides of the same coin, whose name is prejudice.
"Shadows and images, darkness" have been present in Helen's life since childhood. She realises that her dear big brother is also a shadow - but can she step over it? "Things were dark, you saw them dark. Helen did
tired and dark".
The city Helen wanders around in search of Brian - or of something lost she cannot name - is reminiscent of Ackroyd's London, that of Hawksmoor, a place where there is no light without shadows, where blessed are the poor, for they are your doubles, elusive yet omnipresent, huddled at every corner, ready to guide you through murky streets.
The finale reads like a parable, making you think of your own ghosts. It is no longer a series of disjointed thoughts - the final moment of clarity brings with it a strong vision, disturbing yet liberating. It is hard to tell whether you, together with the heroine, have reached the end or are back to the beginning. Be that as it may, this is a deep, sincere, unflinching book whose main strength lies in that great ability to "take you out yourself".
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.