Book review: Paper Cup, by Karen Campbell

This generous and often wryly comic novel follows a homeless woman’s journey from Glasgow to Galloway as she attempts to reunite an engagement ring with its owner, writes Allan Massie

Karen Campbell PIC: Kim Ayres
Karen Campbell PIC: Kim Ayres

Karen Campbell’s eighth novel, her most ambitious to date, opens with a nice piece of misdirection. A drunk, scantily clad young woman is sitting by herself in Glasgow’s George Square with a chamber-pot on her head and fingering her engagement ring. She has been on her hen night, but her friends seem to have deserted her, and you are led to believe that it is her story we will read. She, however, is only the occasion for the story which belongs to a homeless woman, Kelly, along the bench from her. The engagement ring will somehow be left with Kelly and the novel tells of her attempt to restore it to the girl, even though she doesn’t know her name, only that she comes from Galloway. She will journey to find her. The ring could help turn her life around, but it’s the journey and the very varied people she will encounter that must do this.

So, Paper Cup is a quest novel and a picaresque one. Like all good quest novels, there are journeys, the story of Kelly’s physical travel and the internal story of what goes on in her mind and how this may, or may not change her. What she experiences on the road will prove to be a moral education.

This is therefore a novel in a classic tradition like Fielding’s Tom Jones or Stevenson’s Kidnapped, no matter how different in in mood and setting. There are picaresque novels which are only one damn adventure after another, leaving the leading character no different at the end from what he or she was at the beginning, but Paper Cup is more than that. Of course, Kelly’s experiences and adventures on the road and the people she meets are of interest themselves; the novel would be dull if they weren’t, and there is a nice variety of them. But their especial interest lies in what Kelly makes of them and in their effect on her.

Paper Cup, by Karen Campbell

Campbell began with crime novels, efficient police procedurals. Paper Cup is in one sense considerably more ambitious. The picaresque novel is, or can be, liberating, the author freed from the tyranny of the plot. On the other hand, such liberation may result in self-indulgence and her new venture is not entirely free from this. Scenes are too long, sometimes, it seems, simply because of the pleasure she has had in elaborating them, so they continue long after their point is clear. One expects description in a road trip novel, but description clogs the narrative. One need not go so as far as the French novelist Henry de Montherlant, who declared in his notebooks that “description is always a bore”, but a novelist is wise to remember that Stevenson said nobody ever looks at a beautiful view for more than five minutes. So why write about it at length?

This is a good novel, even a very good one, but it would be better still if it had been cut. At its best it is full of life, well-observed and significant, but too much of the life is like a photograph, not a film. This is partly, indeed chiefly, because Campbell has elected to write it in the sadly fashionable present tense, excellent often for description, but not for narrative. The present tense tends to freeze the action and it tempts the novelist to dwell excessively on detail. “On and on runs the road”, but the story too often limps.

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With this qualification, there is nevertheless a great deal to enjoy and admire in this generous and often wryly comic novel: a nice variety of incident and characters, fine descriptions of street life in Glasgow and of Kelly’s journey – a quest that is both physical and spiritual, offering the prospect of recovery and redemption. If there are moments when some may find the novel and its message a bit sentimental, more readers are surely likely to find pleasure and satisfaction in the humanity of Campbell’s treatment of people who have led difficult lives.

Paper Cup, by Karen Campbell, Canongate, 327pp, £14.99.