I’ve looked at the Booker longlist. I haven’t read any of the books, which isn’t surprising as I rarely read hardbacks. I’m not sure whether I’ve read any novels by any of the authors. This is encouraging, I think, as there’s a good chance I’ll find one or two delights there. I particularly want to read the John Berger – perhaps because his early Booker winner, G, was one of the very few books in my school library that I didn’t read.
I did, however, treat myself to one hardback as holiday reading – James Kelman’s new novel, Kieron Smith, Boy. I had to justify the extravagance to myself and thought up a list of excuses: I could teach it one day (not this year – the paperback isn’t due out till April), I might discuss it with students, it would put an Amazon order into the “free postage” category. But the real reason was simple. I wanted to read it.
Somewhere – I can’t remember where – I found the first paragraph. And that was it. It took me into the world of a small boy growing in Glasgow with such immediacy that I wanted to know what happened next. This wasn’t the appeal of a thriller or sci-fi, where I wanted to read the next event – I wanted to live in this boy’s world and know it better.
This is how the novel begins:
"In the old place the river was not far from our street. There was a park and all different things in between. The park had a great pond with paddleboats and people sailed model yachts. Ye caught fish in it too. Ye caught them with poles that had wee nets tied at the end. But most people did not have these. Ye just caught them with yer hands. Ye laid down on yer front close into the edge on the ground. Here it sloped sharp into the water, so ye did not go too close. Just yer shoulders reached that bit where the slope started. Ye rolled up yer sleeves and put yer hands together and let them go down it. Just slow, then touching the water and yer hands going in. If ye went too fast ye went right in up yer arms over yer shoulders. Ye only went a wee bit, a wee bit, a wee bit till yer hands were down as far. Then yer palms up the way, holding together. If a fish came by ye saw it and just waited till it came in close. If it stayed there over yer hands, that was how ye were waiting. It was just looking about. What was it going to do? Oh be careful if ye do it too fast, if yer fingers just move and even if it is the totiest wee bit. Its tail whisked and it was away or else it did not and stayed there, so if ye grabbed it and ye got it and it did not get away. So that was you, ye caught it."
I don’t know exactly what caught me: the language, the voice, the precise physical details, the sense of character. But I knew I had to read on.
I read half the book avidly – then life got in the way and it was a couple of weeks before I returned to it. I regret that gap. I’d like to have sat down and read the book cover to cover without stopping. Not that Kieron Smith’s world is enviable . Like most people’s worlds, it’s mixed. There are elements of love, affection, cruelty and neglect, as there are, I imagine, in every childhood. But the setting is precise and a time is evoked without reference to dates or public events.
If I were to compare Kieron Smith, Boy to any other book, it would be James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But it doesn’t have the same sense of self-importance – unlike Stephen Daedalus, Kieron Smith doesn’t think he is special and has no sense of artistic destiny. And although Kelman’s narrative is just as carefully shaped, it isn’t structured into six episodes with culminating epiphanies. The sections run into one another so that Kieron gradually grows from a small child to an adolescence with no major events. The period is sketched only as events and trends concern Kieron – the move into a housing scheme flat, selective secondary schools, a keenness to wear and be seen in denim.
In one of his essays, James Kelman talks about the way working-class Glaswegians are seen – as violent drunks who lack any “rich inner life.” While Kieron and his family are not exemplary – they have the prejudices of their time, place and culture - Kieron Smith’s story is told with an awareness that a rich inner life is not the preserve of the rich and powerful – it is what marks our common humanity.
Kieron Smith, Boy may not have made the Booker longlist but I have a strong suspicion that it will be my personal book of the year.