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review 2016-08-04 14:33
Morvern Callar - Alan Warner


A lonely, beautiful novel whose narrative voice will wow you and unsettle you in equal measure. Morvern Callar is a twenty-one-year-old girl who works in a supermarket in a run-down Highlands port town (probably some version of Oban); she wakes one morning before Christmas to find that her boyfriend has killed himself in their apartment. The distant, carefully-described way she reacts to this event is, in a sense, at the heart of the novel's fascination, certainly its initial pull on the reader. Like someone from an Icelandic saga, she describes her actions but not her emotions; ‘a sort of feeling went across me’ is about the most we are ever given.


You might see her as numb or in shock; you might with equal justification find her psychotically detached. But she is riveting. By turns naïve and knowing, undereducated but sure of what she wants, her voice is direct, colloquial, dialectal, instantly believable.

It was a dead clear freezing day with bluish sky the silvery sun and you saw all breath.

Uninterested in art or literature (her dismissal of novels is one of the many ironies of this, a first novel), she is however encyclopaedic on contemporary dance music; the text is shot through with track titles and mixtape listings, and there are several hypnotic scenes in clubs that made me feel exhausted and about a hundred years old. When the book came out, Warner was pegged with Irvine Welsh as part of some imagined new wave of Scottish ‘rave novelists’ but, really, it's James Kelman's quotidian, Scots-inflected narrative voices that are the more obvious influence here.


The narrative voice in this case is amazingly unreflective for a novel, focused only on facts and descriptions. These come out in a patois all her own that makes heavy use of blurring suffixes like -ish and -y and nominalisations in -ness. ‘Stars were dished up across all bluey nighttimeness,’ she says, looking at the sky. But this idiom is still capable of all kinds of gentle insights:

I woke and felt queerish. I could tell it was nighttime by the type of voice on telly.

The ‘cross-writing’ in particular hasn't worked for everyone – Warner has been criticised in some quarters for lacking the skill, or even the moral right, to adopt the voice of a young woman. I don't agree, but I do think Morvern's obsession with her own anatomy, clothing and personal hygiene might lead you to guess that her author is a man. In some books this can be charming, but I confess here I did find it a little unsettling. Still, in general I would maintain that this kind of ‘appropriation’ or ‘colonisation’ is really the whole point of fiction, and it's certainly one of the central themes of this novel.


A film adaptation from Lynne Ramsay in 2002 did a great job of capturing the poetic beauty of the novel, but it committed the cardinal sin of making Morvern Callar English, which I couldn't understand – it's not just that you lose the Scottishness of the central voice, but that part of what the book seems to be about is quite specifically being Scottish, growing up there, leaving Scotland, how Scotland relates to Europe. These themes make it an appealing novel to revisit at the moment, though its qualities are likely to speak to you any time, anywhere.


And this despite the fact that Morvern Callar herself is rather a quiet presence in the book: another of its ironies is that her story can seem so articulate, and of something that could not be expressed in standard English, while she as a character is almost mute at times – numb with shock, overwhelmed by friends, silenced by society. ‘Callar,’ Morvern is told by a receptionist at a Spanish resort – ‘ah, it means, ah, silence, to say nothing, maybe.’ Maybe not.

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review 2014-12-11 08:56
Their lips may talk of mischief, but they do nothing...
Their Lips Talk of Mischief - Alan Warne... Their Lips Talk of Mischief - Alan Warner

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not alter my review in any way.

I’m just going to state this straight up, no flowery sentences or beating around the bush: I really disliked these characters! Llewellyn and Cunningham, they’re only 21, but both are stuck up and pretentious, believing the world owes them everything though they have made no contribution to it whatsoever. They both live on government welfare, some of it ill begotten, along with Llewellyn’s young wife Aiofe and baby daughter Lily, the former who Cunningham is increasingly attracted to. They wax on and on about how they’re going to write the greatest novel of their time, yet all they do is drink beer or spirits or whatever they can find and talk about the great novels they’re going to write. They don’t work, they don’t help themselves. They are very easy to dislike.

To start with I was okay with this. The writing was really good and I was enjoying disliking them. But unfortunately by the time I was halfway through I felt pretty done with it. By the time the inevitable happened, which I could see coming a mile off, I was quite disinterested in the rest of the book and could put it down for a couple of days without thinking about it. I wasn’t excited about the book and I didn’t care what happened to the characters, which can happen when you don’t like them. Simply put, I wouldn’t like these guys if I met them. But they do sound like idealistic twenty-one year olds, not that I know much about what life was like in England in the 80s. I recognise their self-entitlement in some of the people I know, so Warner got that spot on.

I know some really smart people have talked about how great this book is, but I can’t find a whole lot more to say about it. I enjoyed the writing but the story itself couldn’t keep me interested and I didn’t feel invested. I would be curious to read Warner’s other works though and see what else he can do.

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review 2014-01-30 23:19
Morvern Callar
Morvern Callar - Alan Warner

bookshelves: film-only, winter-20132014, impac-longlist, published-1995, britain-scotland, recreational-drugs, suicide, music, sleazy, spain, books-about-books-and-book-shops, travel, teh-demon-booze, washyourmouthout-language

Read from January 30 to 31, 2014

Description: Morvern Callar, a low-paid employee in the local supermarket in a desolate and beautiful port town in the west of Scotland, wakes one morning in late December to find her strange boyfriend has committed suicide and is dead on the kitchen floor. Morvern's reaction is both intriguing and immoral. What she does next is even more appalling. Moving across a blurred European landscape-from rural poverty and drunken mayhem of the port to the Mediterranean rave scene-we experience everything from Morvern's stark, unflinching perspective.

Morvern is utterly hypnotizing from her very first sentence to her last. She rarely goes anywhere without the Walkman left behind as a Christmas present by her dead boyfriend, and as she narrates this strange story, she takes care to tell the reader exactly what music she is listening to, giving the stunning effect of a sound track running behind her voice.

In much the same way that Patrick McCabe managed to tell an incredibly rich and haunting story through the eyes of an emotionally disturbed boy in The Butcher Boy, Alan Warner probes the vast internal emptiness of a generation by using the cool, haunting voice of a female narrator lost in the profound anomie of the ecstasy generation. Morvern is a brilliant creation, not so much memorable as utterly unforgettable."

Someone one on one these booksites has very recently read about mixed tapes (Eleni? Jema?), any way, this story is all wound around a mixed tape made for Morvern by her dead boyfriend.

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review 1970-01-01 00:00
Stars in the Bright Sky - Alan Warner Attention! Attention! This is the Scots writer that might get this year Man Booker Prize for fiction!
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