Books: New Review: Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman


“Mo said she was quirky, but it was more than that.” ‘She’ is Helen, a Glaswegian living in London and working night-shifts at a casino. ‘Mo’ is her new boyfriend, a British-Pakistani working in a restaurant. They live in a tiny flat with Helen’s daughter, a six-year-old little madam called Sophie.

We’re first introduced to Helen at 4am while she’s in a taxi on her way home from work. A tall, skinny homeless man crosses the road in front of the cab and Helen believes it’s her long lost brother, Brian. The rest of the novel takes place inside Helen’s head during the next 24 hours of her life, with occasional shifts into dialogue between her, Mo and Sophie.

Not much happens during the day; Helen struggles to fall asleep after her shift, gets her daughter ready for school, has a nap. It’s an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary woman, but one thing is different; Helen can’t stop wondering whether that man was indeed her brother. Helen is a worrier, and most of the novel is dedicated to her concerns; will Sophie get home safely, will Mo be the victim of a racial attack, will they ever move into a bigger house.

Kelman expertly manipulates the punctuation to emphasise this; full stops and capitals are often dropped to show how unorganised and anxious she is, while repetition, and the absence of apostrophes give the prose. The novel follows the modern trend of stream-of-consciousness prose made famous recently by Will Self and Umbrella; as with Umbrella it does hold concentration difficulty, and if punctuation is lacking, plot is even more so.

Unique though, is Kelman’s depiction of the entirety of Mo’s mind; she is three dimensional and original. The beauty of this novel is that Helen could be anyone. There is nothing exceptional about her, but Kelman’s clever use of unsentimental prose makes sure that she is not a stereotype of an impoverished single mother. However I remain undecided. This is a book about the banalities of life, and although the writing is simple, modern and intelligent, the content ends up verging on banal itself.

Mo is available on re-release from Hamish Hamilton now.

Words: Llio Maddocks

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