It all starts on a cold, wet night in Glasgow. Having experienced many such, I know how it feels. Such is the quality of Campbell’s writing on the very first page, that I was feeling it once more. Not a welcome feeling and yet, I was drawn in. Imagine you can’t escape, because you’re homeless …
That homeless person, Kelly, has parked herself on a bench in George Square. Along comes the bride-to-be, separated from her hens. She plonks herself on Kelly’s bench until her party catches up with her and departs. Unfortunately minus her engagement ring, which has slipped off her finger. Kelly finds it and following some prevarication sets off to return it; her reluctance stemming from the need to return to Galloway, her home region, and the reckoning which awaits her there.
She would never have started the journey, had she not got caught in the fallout from a runaway bus incident Campbell referencing here the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy of 2015. I asked her about this at the book signing, about whether wounds were perhaps still too raw to use the incident in this way. That’s why I changed details, she said. It was a mega incident, the whole city was in shock, and I needed something big to shock Kelly into leaving the city. Not that being homeless on the streets of Glasgow is a comfortable existence for her, but it is a place she can remain separate from the world she has rejected. Returning the ring is the start of her journey back into society.
To give structure to what is effectively Kelly’s odyssey into Galloway, Campbell has her following the St Ninian’s way, walking with very little money in her pockets, seeking shelter where she can, dependent and grateful for the rare cases of kindness shown her. The harsh realities of homelessness are depicted, not in a voyeuristic way, but as an exercise in empathy. I wanted to know what that would feel like, said Campbell. This is a novel about vulnerability, about someone on the margins of society, about how easy it is to fall through the cracks.
As Kelly walks in the present towards whatever awaits in the future her memories go further back in time, peeling off the skins of the onion to use Campbell’s analogy, to the time when she went off the rails and descended into alcoholism. She finally reaches the core issue, the misdeed she doesn’t want to face. Is she heading for redemption or perdition? I wanted to offer a glimmer of hope, said Campbell, but the ending had to feel true to the character. Kelly has been repeatedly on and off the streets. Only the future will tell whether she can settle now.
As if Kelly’s personal story isn’t dramatic enough, she is pursued. The newspapers want to find the woman who saved a man during the bus incident by staunching his bleeding with her coat, a nasty farmer wants his dog back (a subplot for dog-lovers and worthy of a post in its own right, as is the humour that is infused throughout). A couple of Glaswegian acquaintances also want to find her before anyone else does. Who will get there first?
I’ve read Campbell before; her story of refugees in Glasgow This is Where I Am, a 5-star read that has a permanent place on my shelves. Paper Cup, which I initially borrowed from the library, has now joined it. It is so good, I had to have my own copy.