Alan Warner (2011) The Stars in the Bright Sky.

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The librarian said you’re going to love this book. It’s exactly how young girls behave when they go on holiday. She was buzzed about it and even smiled.  And it was longlisted for the Man Brooker Prize in 2010. But any good stories got a BUT, I use them a lot. The laws of diminishing returns apply here.

I did love Morvern Caller, Alan Warner’s debut novel.  The Sopranos was great, six eighteen-year old girls from a Catholic school and a wee town about forty miles from Fort William hitting the big smoke of Edinburgh and giving it hell.

Here we have six twenty-one year old women, five of them from a wee Scottish town…hitting Gatwick airport, where nothing happens twice. Orla from The Sopranos is dead. We learn from Finn her dad was upright at the funeral but cried for three days when his neighbour’s cat died.

Or as Finn puts it when she bursts into tears and goes to hide in a Gatwick toilet, ‘When I come to write the book, Kay, it’ll be called: “Tears in the Toilet Cubicle: Our Social Circle’’.’

A toilet cubicle is where the action is in this and Warner’s previous novels. Gatwick Airport doubles as one big toilet from Friday Evening when the novel begins to Tuesday, when it ends, with bars and daft dancing machines and hotel room and drink. Drink pays a big part in Scottish culture and these young girls rip into it from a young, too young, age. Hey, the books say, you’ve got to love them, I did it too and that’s part of what gives Warner’s books its spark. #Me Too.

You can tell a lot from what a young lady drinks. And Warner like his list of music preferences, clothes and make up, gives the reader lists.

Manda: Pint of Guinness Extra Cold

Ava: Double straight Stolichnaya vodka with Red Bull

Kay: Medium-size glass of red wine.

Chell: Bacardi Breezer.

Finn: Tomato juice with vodka, unworthy of the title Bloody Mary.

Kylah: Red Bull and vodka.

Ava has taken the place of Orla from The Sopranos. She’s rich and very thin and pretty, an outsider, a bit like Kay was in The Sopranos that becomes central to the story.

With the jazz of so many voices clamouring to be heard it’s often difficult to tell who is who. In the Sopranos I often lost the thread of which character was speaking, but the narrative carried the book to its conclusion. This happens for me here too.

Look at the drink list above and you’ll see Manda Tassy stands out. A bit rougher than the rest, a bit of crude, when crude is the language of rude. She was a minor character in The Sopranos. Here she is central, more so than The Mighty Finn or sophisticated Kay, who falls apart, as they all do in their different ways. That’s part of the fun, falling down and getting up again. Manda is a running gag in the book, a plot point, detested and loved, in an oversized glass measure.

Laurel and Hardy with pretentions and the narrative often switches to Manda’s point of view. Can she carry the book, in the way that Morvern Caller? Nut. She’s just an annoying cow.

Alan Warner (1998) The Sopranos

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The Sopranos is a cumming-of-age novel. Let’s start at the beginning. Page 1. Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls. Fionnula tells us the school motto, ‘Noses up…knickers DOWN!’ Warning, this novel contains a rape scene, but it’s wee Orla that’s doing the raping.

The Sopranos are the elite of the ‘Hoors of the Sacred Heart’. These are the girls in the fifth-year school choir that can hit the highest notes. There’s Fionnula, Orla, (Ra)Chell, (A)Manda, Kylah, and, at a distance Kay Clarke. Kay Clarke is the snotty one that lives in the big house. Her dad is a consultant and she’s fee-paying and not a soprano, she’s only ‘Seconds’ in the choir. It could be worse, she could be a third, perpetual ever virginal, grouped with Fat Clodagh and Wee Maria. All of the girls have secrets. And you know when they leave the Port to got to the capital Edinburgh for a choral competition, drunkenness and debauchery will be like short skirts and push-up bras something they’ll change out of their school uniform and grow into.

‘It’s 1996’ Fionnnula says, ‘an this country can’t give its people a roof over their heads. It’s funny isn’t it! How in smaller towns folk won’t allow other folk to lie on the streets but it’s okay in the city’.

The good old days. Now, of course, we’re happy for people to live on the streets and queue for food but treat them as a type of pollution, like flapping pigeons begging for bread and shitting on park benches.

That aside, back to the story. The girls had a bit of practice on home ground. Anyone that has read Morvern Caller will recognise the port (I’m guessing Fort William-ish). Late in the book, inside the only club that decent boys and men from the subs go to, The Mantrap, Alan Warner sneaks in a wee mention of Morvern.

Aye, goes Michelle, Know how it is in here. Nothing like a new face on the mental scene to raise the sleepy cocks.

Who’s that again? goes Manda.

What, Scobbie MacIntosh?

Nah, no him, that guy on the far end on his own. Cute, See him about.

He’s spoken for. Bit of a quiet case, he lives wi yon Morvern from the Superstore, used to live up the Scheme.

Oh right he’s the guy; that’s a bonny bonny lassie.

And this is a bonnie bonnie novel. It didn’t have quite the kick of Morvern Caller, but that’s maybe because I’m an old guy that gets jaded quickly and can’t quite keep up. Great fun and a great read, nevertheless. Read on.


Alan Warner (1995) Morvern Callar

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In my smug way I thought I’d read  Morvern Caller before and been unimpressed. I vaguely remembered a film of Alan Warner’s book starring Ewan McGregor. I was reading an interview director Lynne Ramsay gave to The Observer. I had another look at the book and realised I hadn’t read it, there was no film with Ewan or any other McGregor and I loved it’s in your face style. It’s the kind of people I know. Quite simply, Morvern Caller talks like us.

She doesn’t say no, she says ‘nut’. And the opening it a cracker.

‘He’d cut his throat with a knife…’

‘He was bare and dead face down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at…’

‘I started greeting on account of all those presents under our tree and Him dead. Useless little presents always made me sad.’

She’s not sad because her boyfriend has killed himself. Later we get the backstory. He was twenty-one, she was sixteen, but working in the local store since thirteen for a few extra bob. He bought her the biggest box of chocolates. We don’t find out his name. He’s left an unpublished novel and tells Morvern to send it away so he can be someone in the afterlife. Morvern is a smart girl, He’s got his own place and bit of cash. She sends it away but puts her own name on it as the novice novelist. It’s accepted and Morvern is to get an advance on the book. A more pressing matter for Morvern is what to do with the body. She doesn’t do anything. Steps around at and goes to work in the superstore, one of the few employers in the small Scottish town that’s not seasonal.

‘For the sake of something to do I tided away all the presents for Him, Red Hanna, Vanessa the Depresser and Lanna.’

Here’s the main characters. Listen to their names. It tells you everything you need to know. Red Hanna is Morvern’s stepdad and her girlfriend is Vanessa the Depresser. You don’t need to say who is she?  Her name tells you. Lanna is the one that Morvern is closest to, physically and emotionally. They’re about the same age, work in the superstore and after work go to dance together at The Mantrap, which is, you’ve guessed,  a local dive. All the guys fancy Morvern because she’s beautiful, like an angel, but Lanna isn’t bad either, although both plot their lives around working out how bad they can be and how far they can stretch their bodies in the little hole in which they live.   They get absolutely blitzed when the can and make the most of their life. But Morvern doesn’t tell Lanna about Him. She was going to, but never. Nut. She chops up his body and hides it on the surrounding hills.

There’s a cleave in Morvern and Lanna’s friendship. She’s also got a secret, but it’s just a wee thing compared to Morvern’s secret.

Studded throughout the book is track-listings compilation tapes of music that Morvern uses to pick her up and help her like booze does to get through the day and live a life. Morvern’s twenty-one and wants something from life, she’s just not sure what. I guess you could call it a coming of age novel, but who gives a fuck? It’s a brilliant first time book. All I can say is well done you.