Alan Warner achieved prominence in the 1990s with his first novel, Morvern Callar: a contemporary classic which fused rave culture with the anomie of working-class life in the Scottish Highlands. His subsequent works have maintained a focus on popular culture, while incorporating avant-garde influences. But his latest novel is a departure – a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s.
It commences with a lyrical prelude about the railway route that is to be the story's backdrop. Then comes an episode about a royal visit in 1961 to the Broken Moan estate of local dignitary Andrew Bultitude. Only after these apparently false starts do we begin the main narrative concerning Simon Crimmons, who decides to skip sixth form and leave school early. Crimmons spurns the family haulage business, instead opting for a job on the railways. He must also choose between the relationship he has plunged into with his schoolfriend Nikki and pursuing Bultitude's daughter, Varie.
This is a novel that foregrounds bridges and divides. The biggest gulf is between the implacable majesty of the mountainous landscape and the community scrabbling for a living in and around it. Yet there are plenty of human divisions too. Warner captures the class divide between the nouveau riche Crimmonses and the old money of the eccentric Bultitudes in layers of acute observation, some wryly comic.
Crimmons is oddly adult for his callow years – at times his matter-of-fact reactions to events can seem as mechanical as the trains he drives. Nevertheless, emotional turmoil surfaces when his father fights with an employee and then tells his son of his own rites of passage during the Second World War.
Warner presents us with a narrative reminiscent of a 19th-century Bildungsroman. The gamble pays off handsomely. For the first 70 pages or so the story's impact seems limited. After that the novel steadily becomes more compelling. Finally, the patterns of Warner's grand design emerge, as mesmerising as the Highland scenery he describes with such sublime intensity.