Book Review: Paper Cup by Karen Campbell – walking in the shoes of a character at odds with the world

It can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a homeless person, particularly one like Kelly. She’s around fifty, an alcoholic whose thoughts never seem to stray far from where she’s going to get the next drink. You might think this makes Paper Cup uncomfortable reading too. And sometimes it is. But far outweighing all that is Kelly’s story and her telling of it. It helps that there’s a bunch of interesting and amusing characters around Kelly and the argo of Glasgow adds a touch of Billy Connelly. You might wonder if Glaswegians ever take themselves seriously.

Paper Cup is a kind of road novel, beginning during a Glasgow evening when a bride-to-be on her hen night makes a connection with the person dossing on a nearby bench. Fed up with the indignities of her evening, bride Susan flings down the bag of pound coins she’s earned for kisses from strangers but accidentally loses her engagement ring. Susan will be heading back to Galloway for her wedding a week away, and she’ll be aghast to discover her ring’s missing.

Kelly has been running from the past, a past that began in Galloway and has caused her to cut ties with her father and sister. What happened ruined Kelly’s life, setting her on a path of self-destruction and she’s been running from it all ever since, losing herself in alcohol. Suddenly, over twenty years later, there’s a reason to go back, and she has a week to get there. Along the way Kelly will meet people who help her, though many avoid her – she smells after all. And in her unlikely way, she’ll help others too, even saving a life and rescuing a dog. Kelly unwittingly becomes the unlikeliest of heroes and very readable.

She abhors it, this strange adolescent fury she feels. And this sharp recall of past events that keeps bowfing out on her – she doesny want that either. What is her mind playing at, opening doors and shaking out corners?
Just leave it well alone, Kelly.
Well, I’m trying, Kelly, I really am, but it seems we are running away with ourselves.

While it’s a kind of redemption story Paper Cup is also packed with humour. The way Kelly just brazen things out, getting away with all sorts, to feed and clothe herself – but then when you have nothing but what you carry with you, sometimes it’s the only way. She finds herself joining a kind of pilgrimage of sacred sites around the coast. She’ll learn about a leper colony and about two women condemned as witches for not adhering to the local faith. History repeats in its casting off of those who don’t fit in.

The novel is also reasonably pacy. With her deadline of one week to reach Susan before her wedding, there are moments when you feel Kelly hasn’t a hope of making it on time. And her wild disregard for rules throws her up against forces that want to stop her, including her own demons. Meanwhile she’s caught the attention of the news media who want to tell her story. You desperately want to give Kelly a hand and fortunately, eventually, someone does.

Paper Cup is a brilliant, heart-felt read, the writing is stunning and it will have you thinking. The next time you come across a homeless person, you might feel inclined to throw a coin into their paper cup. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you might think about what has happened to them to bring them to the streets. This novel is one of my top reads for the year and gets a well-earned five out of five stars from me.