The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

High times with a grounded gang
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The Independent Culture

Alan Warner's third novel was The Sopranos, a screechingly funny, punchy and poignant tale of six Scottish schoolgirls on the lash after ducking out of a singing competition.

Three books on, he has returned to them, finding the girls grown up into "young women" as he graciously puts it – all except Orla, who did succumb to the Hodgkin's disease that was just coming out of remission. This time the girls are heading to Gatwick to bag the cheapest last-minute holiday they can find. The original quota of six is filled by the addition of Ava, posh English flatmate of Finn, both studying French and philosophy in London. Indeed, the group splits along the fault line of education and migration. Kay, too, has left home, to study architecture at Edinburgh, while Chell, Kyla and Manda have stayed in the port town of Oban, working in the tourist office, Woolies and the hair salon respectively.

The dominant figure is Manda. Previously bossy and boorish, she has blossomed into a truly dreadful person, an ignorant loudmouth. "I think I'd be great on Big Brother and that," Manda says. "Fame in the public eye, and loads of money from it." It is a mark not so much of the girls' loyalty as their pity for the monstrous Manda that, when she discovers she has lost her passport, they agree to miss their plane (thus forfeiting the whole cost of their holiday) rather than leave her behind.

It is a liberating moment. Having geared us up for a week of drinking and shagging in Magaluf, Warner diverts us back into the sterile, retail-saturated landscape of the terminal. Here the "young women" pass the time drinking, and talking about shagging. The chat occasionally builds to an outrageous set piece, as when Manda tops up her multiple Guinness Extra Colds with an ill-advised vodka and Red Bull and ends up vomiting into a hotel ice dispensing machine. "Vast amounts of the brown liquid were now emerging from Manda's innards in long bouts...". And it gets worse.

Yet, a few pages later, Warner slides in a scene of chilly beauty as the gang drive to Hever Castle. Chell and Ava peel off to sit and smoke beside the ornamental lake. Ava evokes the lost romance of Lord Astor's boating parties, and Chell responds with a quiet confession of how haunted she is by the death at sea of her stepfather.

Their brief, deep connection is typical. Warner insists that every individual has the capacity to touch the life of every other. If The Stars in the Bright Sky has a weakness, it is similar to that of The Sopranos – the girls' dialogue is so funny, their characters so immersive, their company so enjoyable, that you worry the book is just flim-flam. It's not. Warner navigates the comic, the philosophical and the socially acute like no other writer we have.

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