If you want novels with turning-points, pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, the marriage of a heroine, the restoration of the status quo, or any other sort of overarching narrative structure to make you feel cosy, don't look to James Kelman. You will find more awkward adventure in Kelman's meticulous commitment to the common experiences of ordinary life – all conveyed in playful, accessible language from a particular voice and a particular place. In this, Kelman is in a league of his own.
The narrator of Kieron Smith, Boy starts his story in a tenement flat in Glasgow on the south side of the Clyde, probably in the late 1940s. Then, like so many others in the 1950s, his family is moved to a new-town scheme. Castlemilk, Easterhouse, Drumchapel and Pollok were huge housing schemes developed in response to Bevan's 1946 Housing Act. Kelman himself was born in 1946, grew up initially in Govan, then moved to Drumchapel as a young boy. Kieron experiences the same fearful change of circumstance.
Any adult who has told a child what to do (all of us), and anyone who pushed around their younger siblings as child (most of us), will feel a hot rush of guilt when reading this book. Kieron lives his life negotiating fear. His father's heavy hand, his older brother's punches, his granny's poking stick, his teacher's whacking ruler, his peers' pelting stones – all deliver bouts of pain in the guise of punishment and retribution.
As a Protestant living within earshot of Rangers' stadium, Kieron is inculcated with fear of the Catholics on the next street and expected to loathe the Pope, nuns, Celtic and all things Irish. His Irish-sounding name is a source of Protestant disgust, even from his own granny, so he knows what it is to be a victim of prejudice.
Negotiating his way through these entangled fears and dangers, Kieron is given space for playful exploration of both the urban environment of Glasgow, and the rural building site of his new town. Kelman maps the intimate understanding of local topography through which children navigate their territories. Without sentimentality he renders the complex hierarchies that confine us all in our childhood; likewise, he dramatises through crisp dialogue the subtle interactions of children. Like blind Sammy in his Booker-winning How Late It Was, How Late, he creates a tactile relationship between subject and location. Kieron smells, hears, touches and clambers his way through various play spaces. Through this engaging sensitivity, a lucid stage is drawn around him.
Kieron is fascinated by the power invested in bad words, largely through their suppression, and so he is the only Kelman character to self-censor as he writes. In 1994, critics fell over themselves to count the instances of "fuck" in How Late It Was, How Late. Kieron's "b*****r" and "f**k" will please those commentators who, like Kieron's prissy teachers, have seen only the "bad words" in Kelman's work, and little else of value. Censorship of the tongue leads to a sense of a whole culture being suppressed. Even Kieron's maw (or "mother" as she would prefer) wants his pronunciation and grammar to be as standard – as English – as possible. At school the instructions are clear: "It was say yes and not aye, down and not doon, am not and no um nay, ye were just to speak nice."
Kieron's mother has swallowed wholesale the ideology that anglicised pronunciations are best, while Glaswegian is to be avoided. She, and a host of other adults, will force-feed Kieron this ideology too, even if it undermines his sense of self-worth, or bruises his fledgling identity. There are many Scottish novels which stage this problem of systemic linguistic inferiorisation, but none of them has done it within the language of a developing child.
Kieron's greatest problem is that he cannot make himself heard, and that many of his questions are ignored, and some of them silenced altogether. This novel suggests that adult power structures collude to muffle a child's critical faculties, to stop a child rebelling, to force submission to adult rule, the rule of school and so the rule of the state. Scenes of great humour and emotional and social warmth provide hope in the face of all this oppression. Kieron Smith, Boy gives voice to an honourable decency which guides the human spirit even in the midst of its own brutality. This is an outstanding novel of immense power, and is Kelman's best yet.
Simon Kövesi's book 'James Kelman' is published by Manchester University PressReuse content