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James Kelman
Kieron Smith, Boy
Hamish Hamilton £18.99
Review by Catherine Woodward


It is difficult to see how a man with a continual awareness of the infinite sensitivities, pragmatics and identity struggles involved in language, could ever be branded ‘an illiterate savage’. But it must be supposed that stranger things have happened, as this was the title earned by anti-elitist Kelman himself, for his Booker Prize-winning How Late it was, How Late. Praise comes hand in hand with terrible criticism for Kelman, as his breaking away from literary tradition and fierce refusal of regional prejudices, gives his work a realism which some have found distasteful. A terrible thing then if his (likewise) prize-winning Kieron Smith, Boy goes unappreciated for its wakefulness of both Language’s abilities to construct personal identity, and to undermine and tear that identity down.
A well constructed idiosyncratic grammar gives away young Kieron’s inner conflict from the very beginning, at the same time communicating one of Kelman’s pet causes - revealing the subordination of particularly northern working class people through not only the suppression of dialect but through the differentiating concept of dialect itself. Kieron’s voice mixes Scottish vernacular with Queen’s English ‘Aye I will. That was what he said. I am going’ two separate cultural identities forced upon him by the pressures of both parents, thus producing a manner so individual that Keiron becomes tangible, he is the whole story, removing the authorial element altogether.
Kieron’s difficulty in finding his place becomes ever more pitiable; shunned by his brother, misunderstood by his parents and owning only one real friend, Kieron begins by being just as unable to explain his situation as he is to understand it. His early matter-of-fact recounting of events, often tying inextricably with unprompted dialogue, produces a bitter dramatic irony; Kelman has us begging for Kieron to understand the cruelty of his world as well as we do

‘…he was there with the boulder in two hands gripping it, holding it to his chin, getting my face in full view and taking aim and then he dropped it…’

Gratifyingly however, his awareness is climactically refined as the story goes on.

After the intermittent Sunday School boy rationalisations and the persistent God is Good, the reader cannot help but to be endeared by Kieron’s fluctuating but ever present will to be A Good Boy. This charming yet gutting foolishness therefore is suitably smashed upon the death of Kieron’s idolised grandfather, who is arguably the only reason Kieron ever entertained being good. Likewise when Kieron finally is provoked and excluded to the point of outburst in ‘posh’ secondary school, his sudden decision to swear uncensored, is the final unwelcome transition into adolescence.
In this book, Kelman is cruel. And though he is excessively cruel in narrative, he is subtle with the rest; as we watch Kieron grow into adolescence we see he is full of potential; in just the childish substitution of ‘if’ for ‘when’ (‘so if it was God, He knew ye knew.’) we see that Kieron sees everything helplessly full of possibility, the way a real child dreams up a better world or future to fix translucently over his existing one. Yet at the story’s conclusion, Kieron seems to be the only one without his potential realised; this is a story of victimisation without redemption, a story of suffering without justice, an allusion to the fate of a socially ridiculed and rejected North.




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