Alan Warner - Morvern Callar (1995)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Morvern Callar. ‘Morvern’: West Highland Peninsula bounded by sea lochs; ‘Callar’: fresh, attractive. From the black and white cover of my Jonathan Cape first edition, the eponymous heroine stares back at me, her face smeared with peat, initiate of some weird Caledonian land rite, mysterious, unsettling and beautiful. And this first impression took me to the heart of what was special about a novel that has stayed with me for nearly ten years.
1995 was a key date in Scottish fiction: Trainspotting was a couple of years old (film/stageplay/soundtrack/ global marketing phenomenon still to kick in) with Rebel Inc and the Chemical Generation in full swing. All very well, but all very Central Belt and all very urban (apart from Duncan McLean) and the authors always seemed to want to talk about football hooliganism, going to raves and taking Es. Some of them even went as far as trying (unconvincingly) to give the impression that these activities meant that they didn’t have much time for reading books. And true, there’s a lot of deranged partying, drink, music and alcoholic mayhem in Morvern Callar. For me, though, the defining quality of the book is its startling lyricism; a near-mystical evocation of its Highland setting through a first-person narrative that shimmers with an ecstatic appreciation of Nature and landscape. This book has more in common with Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn than with Irvine Welsh.
Warner’s reconstruction of his native Oban is also a wonderful creation: a crazed zone of anecdotes, myths and improbably named characters. There are fabulous set-pieces: the corpse of Morvern’s boyfriend sprawled across his model railway like a giant in a Highland landscape; the Hiphearan drinking whisky out of a salmon; Couris Jean remembering the day on the beach that made her speechless for four years. Many of the sombre late scenes of the novel evoke the dream-like atmosphere of the Highland railway and its surrounding hills and forests at night, drawing on Warner’s experience as a railway worker.
All of this is conveyed through Morvern’s highly distinctive voice, resolutely Highland in its tone and inflection but contemporary in its field of references to popular culture, individuated through brand names, designer labels, shades of nail varnish, names of bands and favourite tracks. For all of this, I still love Morvern Callar; book and character.
Further reading: The Sopranos (1998) is about a group of girls in a schools choir competition; The Man Who Walks (2002) follows the fortunes of The Nephew, chasing his uncle through the Highlands.
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