Reviewed by Kirsty Doole
Despite being a proud Scot and committed bookworm, there are an embarrassing number of great Scottish novels that I am yet to read. Vintage Classics have recently come to the rescue, though, by reissuing five modern Scottish classics to mark the 20th anniversary of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar. It is Warner’s novel that Shiny New Books asked me to review, and I was only too happy to do it because it’s one of those books that I’ve been meaning to get around to for a long time.
Morvern Callar is a twenty-one year old supermarket employee in a small Highland sea port. One morning, near Christmas, she comes into the kitchen to find her much older boyfriend has committed suicide and is lying in a pool of blood on the floor. What would you do in these circumstances? Dial 999? Yes, me too, but I am not Morvern Callar, who instead opens her Christmas presents from him, plugs in her (new) Walkman, and goes to work. Later, when she reads his suicide note, she discovers he has written a novel and that all he asks of her is that she try and get it published for him; his last chance at his name being immortalised. Morvern does send it to some publishers, but not before replacing her boyfriend’s name with her own. The boyfriend remains nameless, both in the literary world and within the novel itself. He remains omnipresent, though, reflected through the capitalisation of the ‘His’ and ‘He’ and ‘Him’ pronouns.
What follows is a stunning psychological portrait of a young woman making sense of the bizarre situation she has found herself in. She processes her grief by covering up the suicide and indulging in drink, drugs, and casual sex along with her best friend Lanna. Morvern seems constantly torn between a desire to escape her small town and an irrepressible need to be home. She is pulled and released like the dark sea that looms, sometimes menacingly, in the background of the novel.
In his afterword to the new edition, Alan Warner writes that what struck him as he re-read the novel now was Morvern’s loneliness, ‘which she has brought upon herself – almost deliberately chosen. The book is a sort of ledger of her loneliness.’ I would agree with that, she is a lonely soul looking for peace. But even as she acts in increasingly odd and immoral ways, she remains strangely likable. This book is, ultimately, her confession, not just of the cover-up of the suicide, but of every thought or impulse she has ever had. From shopping lists to the track listings of the cassettes she listens to on an almost constant basis, from the ever-increasing list of people she has slept with to every Silk Cut she lights with the goldish lighter left under the Christmas tree for her by the boyfriend.
It is not always an easy read. As you can imagine, there are some pretty bleak moments and some gory descriptions. But it also has surprisingly light moments, and it is full of the blackest of comedy. Morvern Callar may be the confession of a lonely, disturbed young woman, but it is also a story of redemption and hope. I was well and truly rooting for our (anti-)heroine. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it.
Kirsty Doole is a Book Fox for Vulpes Libris and sometimes misses her beloved cassette Walkman.
Alan Warner, Morvern Callar (London: Vintage Classics, 2015), 978-1784870102, paperback, 205pp
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