Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman
Other Press (April 23, 2013)
Source: NetGalley eBook
Helen is divorced, living in London with her six-year old daughter,
Sophie, and English-Pakistani boyfriend, Mo. A native of Glasgow, Helen
moves to London with Sophie, where she works nights in a casino to
support the family, her ex-husband a vague shadow from the past.
Helen and Sophie share an apartment with Mo, a somewhat goofy but good-natured man in love with Helen and very fond of Sophie, taking care of her as though he idealized a future together with them, as a family. Only, his Muslim family would never accept his marriage to a woman not of their faith. It's an unresolvable issue that's a thorn in Helen's side and something Mo prefers to ignore. The three of them make up an unconventional family without benefit of marriage, struggling along as best they can.
On her way back from her night job, riding with friends in a taxi, a destitute man crosses the street in front of them. Hazy and uncertain, Helen believes the man is her lost brother, Brian. She soon becomes obsessed with the conviction it must have been him, despite the unlikelihood. The last she knew of him he didn't live in London. For all she knew he'd never been there. It had been so long since she'd last seen him she may not have recognized him, much less chancing to see and know him in the street.
At home, Helen falls into a chair, too tired and overwhelmed to sleep. Sitting there, she begins what will make up the bulk of the novel, an often confused jumble of interior monologue in which she considers her life, bouncing between her current life and her past.
Kelman's method of telling the story is at once brilliant, moving, at times even comical but it's also very, very long. It seems a shame criticizing the beauty of the book, one woman's life laid out for us to see, all her secrets, fears and dreams expressed through the filter of a sense of helplessness and uncertainty. The truth is, despite the perfection of the writing my patience ran out about 80% through. I hated myself for it but I skim-read a few dozen pages, to get to the end and say I had read it. Even without passing my eyes over every, single word I did get it. I came to know Helen, probably more intimately than she knew herself. I don't miss what I missed; it had already been said. I wanted to know what happened. I needed to know Helen's fate and hoped it would bring her happiness but I could not continue reading all the minutiae of her life.
It was beautiful, the whole book. Helen is one woman representing so many other women in her same situation. Life has been imperfect, twisting in a way she had never expected, uncertainty dogging her steps while she struggles to be the solid, loving mother her daughter needs. Depression and the weight of life press down on her shoulders; nothing is stable and it seems it never will be. Over-arching it all, did she really see her brother and will this one, last link to her past bring her the one solace it's possible for her to have?
Life is never smooth; things never turn out the way we expect. Kelman's novel captures this, expressing it through a woman broken by life, exhausted but unable to find rest. It's a fine, highly accomplished piece of fiction. The one and only flaw is it could have been shorter without losing any of its power. In fact, it could only have added to it. Still, it's superb.