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

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there