HAMISH HAMILTON £18.99 (422PP). ORDER FOR £17.09 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

Kieron Smith, Boy, by James Kelman

Say aye to Kelman's best yet

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 Press

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone