James Kelman - Kieron Smith, Boy (3 stars)

James Kelman

(Hamish Hamilton)


James Kelman doesn’t have a reputation for writing easy-to-read books. Not necessarily a bad thing, since often the most rewarding fiction is the most demanding. Compared to his last two novels, Translated Accounts and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, Kieron Smith, Boy is relatively coherent and straightforward, but still takes some getting used to. Written in stream-of-consciousness Glasgow dialect (echoing his infamous Booker winner How Late it Was, How Late), it tells of the titular 12-year-old growing up in post-war Glasgow. Smith’s family flits from the tenements to a housing scheme on the city’s outskirts, where he moves to a better school, seeking solace from these tumultuous events (and his parents’ squabbles) at his grandparents’ house.

The novel doesn’t contain a plot, merely a string of consecutive events, something which ultimately becomes annoying. There is no conventional story arc, rather we get a snapshot of a time and place seen through adolescent eyes and imbued with all the emotions and confusion that entails. The triumph of this book is its voice. All too often, coming-of-age novels fail because the author cannot resist using their current, middle-aged voice to comment on the past. No such cop out for Kelman, who forcefully gets inside Smith’s head on page one and resolutely stays there.

The novel addresses sectarianism, racism, sexism, bullying and, most obviously, the struggle between the classes, but always does so through the filter of Smith’s mind. As a character study it’s virtually flawless, as a novel it’s sometimes extremely frustrating.

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