That Was a Shiver and Other Stories by James Kelman – Review
By Ela Portnoy
When opening this book there is one thing that you just can’t ignore – James Kelman is Glaswegian. This is woven into the stories, in the plots, in the language, and even, to some extent, in the turns of phrase that mark a thought process. His characters speak colloquial Glasgow English, and his writing has an everyday normality. There is a strong feeling that we are reading vignettes of ‘the people’; this is the mean and gritty, the image of everything that renaissance sculptors would gloss over, a crude image of Glasgow.
Kelman grew up in Govan and Drumchapel, two of Glasgow’s poorest areas. His mother was a housewife and his father owned a small, struggling picture framing business. He won the Booker Prize in 1994 but was heavily criticised for the ostensibly unmotivated use of swearing in his writing. This may seem excessively prudish, but it seems it had a negative effect on his career, as publishers became reluctant to handle him. Nevertheless, Kelman has since become a leading figure in English-speaking literature, and the subject of much academic, critical and public acclaim.
In the mind of this critic, the language and subjects of Kelman’s writing are reminiscent of Steinbeck and it seems that his stories are pioneering in the way in which they use colloquialisms. And yet, there was something a little deflated about That Was A Shiver. The stories in this collection are often neither here nor there. They may open up taboos, showing things like disappointing one night stands in detail, or the thought processes of sexual fantasies during masturbation, but most of the stories left me disappointingly nonplussed.
A lot of Kelman’s writing is rough and dirty to the point where there is little hope or redemption for the characters. They are still relatable, but where Angela Carter, for instance, describes dirt in lots of detail and makes it fascinating, Kelman’s prose sometimes feels like dirt-for-dirt’s-sake and is therefore unpurposive and a little flat.
Nevertheless, Kelman’s style is interesting, and the writer remains a vital presence in establishing voices for working-class characters and language in British literature.
‘That Was a Shiver and Other Stories’ by James Kelman is published by Canongate