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Mo said she was quirky, By James Kelman

The Glaswegian master moves to London and creates a hard-pressed heroine for our age.

James Kelman is known for writing impoverished, disenchanted men, not women. Some critics have worried about this, implying that an old-fashioned Glaswegian sexism lies behind Kelman's choice of leads in his major fictions. While his novels usually focus on just one man, there have been many female protagonists in his short stories and plays, which are just as important to any assessment of Kelman's huge impact on world literature. By no means is Kelman's an all-male world.

It is also true that the sometimes ineffectual males at the centre of Kelman's longer fictions idolise women – often from afar. But the novels themselves make us aware of the jarring, sexist awkwardness generated by these fumbling men as they try to place unwitting women on pedestals. From the tensions and jealousies of a couple working competing shifts in The Busconductor Hines (1984) to the lovelorn sorrows of young Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection (1989) to the isolating wake of a failed relationship which haunts Sammy in How late it was, how late (1994): with immense tenderness and unsentimental complexity, Kelman has always painted detailed portraits of negotiations between the sexes. His latest novel centres on a young working mother, Helen. But is Kelman Tolstoy? Can this man "do" women?

Helen is experiencing a slow death by a thousand cuts from a wide variety of tyrannies. Her partners, present and past; her parents – a cold, sniping mother and a violently aggressive father; her employers, colleagues and customers at the casino where she works as a croupier: all make her acutely aware that everybody treats her secondarily if not dismissively. She is "waiting, always waiting, and always for other people, their life is the important one, theirs and not yours".

Like Sammy in How late.., put-upon Helen is resilient because she is fiercely intelligent. Her very modern world is riven by intolerances. That she is a white Glaswegian woman living in south London with an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim boyfriend, and thinks of Scotland as a place of distant memories, miseries and dependencies, only sharpens the intensity of the prejudice she experiences, and has always suffered, as a Scottish woman. Alex Salmond's putative future bears no relevance for Helen: "What was Scottishness? She didnt know... and it didnt matter because it wasnt her."

With her six-year-old daughter Sophie and boyfriend Mo, Helen lives in the claustrophobia of poverty – the confines and compromises of which Kelman renders masterfully. He details the clashes of their night shifts, what they can afford, and the raw impact on Sophie of a permanently tired mother, of child care, of school drop-off and pick-up absences. So small is the rented place they share that Sophie sleeps in a cupboard.

The novel starts with Helen being jerked into self-assessment by a chance observation of her long-estranged brother, probably now homeless in London. Helen reads injustice everywhere and, like many of Kelman's heroes, has a fervid moral conscience. She spends a good deal of a stream-of-consciousness novel gnawing at her own incomprehension; she puts in a huge amount of empathetic imagination into thinking through the hatred of others, and is evidently a sophisticated feminist.

Yet she cannot come to terms with the unkindnesses she experiences or hears about, nor the countless suffocations of poverty. She is cabined by her fears over the vulnerabilities of her daughter, the off-stage shadow of her Glaswegian ex – away from whose spiteful, jealous, violence they sought refuge in London. Always looming large for her, and her concern for her daughter's future, are men: looking, touching, domineering, threatening.

This is a brilliant novel which portrays the multi-faceted ways in which a working woman and her daughter are susceptible to severe hardship, while also presenting the fraught social realities of being a child, an immigrant, an Asian, a Muslim, a mixed-race couple, a homeless person, or poor in the widest sense. The sort of threadbare life lived by Helen is so rarely given any unsentimental coverage in fiction that - in a time of massive state withdrawal, which is putting special pressure on poor women - Kelman might just have written his most important novel yet. This should be the lead item on everyone's summer reading list, not least David Cameron's.

Simon Kövesi is Head of English and Modern Languages at Oxford Brookes University

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