Books: Flower of Scotland

His girls may specialise in Highland flings, but there's more to Alan Warner than whisky and Wonderbras. Robert Crawford listens to a wildly talented voice

Some time before he published his first novel, Morvern Callar, in 1995, Alan Warner submitted poetry to Verse magazine. As editor, I rejected it, and told him the prose of his biographical note was much livelier than his poetry. He sent back the note, rewritten as a poem. It was published. This anecdote reveals several things about Warner. First, he is a poet as well as a novelist, and for him poetry and prose can fuse. Second, he's wittily cheeky. Third, he has a sense of the opportunities of the market. Or, as he once put it, "A. Warner born Oban. In his mid- twenties, Alan is a/ Guaranteed Free Range Poet with twenty four hour access/ To open pasture."

At 33, Warner the novelist has now marked out some distinctive pastures of his own. Both Morvern Callar (filmed by the BBC) and its sequel, These Demented Lands, featured the small-town female escapee Morvern. Lyrically and disturbingly, the novels presented a Highland terrain, sex, violence, menace, and rave culture. Warner, who was encouraged in Oban by the poet and novelist Iain Crichton Smith, has - like his early mentor - a surreally- tinged imagination. His subject-matter and his gift for exploiting an audience have led to comparisons with Irvine Welsh. The author of Trainspotting hailed Morvern as a "sassy party chick" and is acknowledged in Warner's third novel, The Sopranos (Cape, pounds 9.99). Warner, Welsh and their fellow Scot Duncan McLean share the same publisher and the same editor, Robin Robertson.

So Warner is certainly One of the Lads of the new Scottish fiction, but he is also purposefully his own man. One of the dedicatees of These Demented Lands was Juan Carlos Onetti, the unflinching Uruguayan novelist who created his own fictional terrain of Santa Maria, peopled it with strong, though morally ambiguous characters, and chronicled its detailed history. The Uruguayan critic Gustave San Roman has already christened the Spanish- speaking Warner as "the Scottish Onetti".

English-language audiences might more readily intuit that one of Warner's literary heroes is William Faulkner. As that novelist of the southern States created and peopled his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so Warner has firmly established himself as the chronicler of the mostly working- class girls of The Port: a location based on Oban.

If all this sounds pretentious, the rip-roaring energy and horror-hilarity of The Sopranos show that Warner can combine a passion for literary style with go-anywhere demotic humour. His new novel busses the choir of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls from The Port to The Capital for a singing competition. Mad for sex, drink (but not drugs), and shoplifting, Fionnula, Kylah, Orla, Chell and pals wreak havoc in Edinburgh before ensuring that the choir's performance in the competition is so disastrous that they get bussed home in time to storm the menfolk of the local disco.

Their teachers, Sister Condron (aka - you guessed it) and the others, are reduced to uncomprehending ruin. The Sopranos, fantasising about G- strings and submarines full of semen and knowing that ahead lies a small- town life, burn with an insatiable ardour. One is dying, many are trapped, but all exude an appalling and hypnotic energy.

In These Demented Lands, Warner had flares going off; in The Sopranos, his schoolgirls light a box of fireworks indoors. Dream-driven energy entrances him, but his plotting also involves carefully planned geometry. There are farce-like vectors as the choirgirls enter and exit police stations and emergency wards. Neither the Catholic Church nor the institutions of the Capital seem able to tame, shame or contain them. They are at once innocent and longingly corrupt, desperate for a determined spree before life boxes them in. They want to be (as Muriel Spark put it in another Edinburgh schoolgirl novel) "famous for sex".

Warner gleefully inhabits the minds of his teenage lassies, and fetishistically details their provocative clothing. Philip Larkin might have kept this book in his desk drawer; sometimes, indeed, The Sopranos is like St Trinians with condoms and male nudity. Yet if this hints at a note of market-exploitation (the movie rights have already been sold), it should also be said that the remarkable alertness and confidence of the writing mean that there's a lot more going on here than a laddish and lassish preoccupation with Wonderbras and very short skirts.

Lyrical attentiveness to physical detail marks out Warner's writing. So, travelling home from the Capital, teenage Orla "put a cheek against cold glass of the window; when she restlessly took her face away, a crescent of condensation stayed then shrunk on its own dimensions, leaving only the black night and its frightening lands". Such moments of prose-poetry illumine the novel and give it a tenderness that complicates the girls' crude talk. Very occasionally there's an Under Milk Wood quality to Warner's poetic prose, but usually it's a combination of muck and brio that is all his own. The scatological and the delicate are fused in a tale that confirms Warner's status as the Rimbaud of Argyll.

As often in post-James Kelman Scottish fiction, the narrator's voice can sound at times like the characters' speech. But the poetry of Warner's text goes hand in hand with an unKelmanly hedonistic impulse. Morvern Callar astounded not least because of its male-authored, thrill-seeking, female narrator. Much of the time in The Sopranos, Warner reserves for his genderless third-person voice a sensibility and reach denied to most of his characters, though Kylah is allowed lyrical perceptions of her own. The style is an art-speech suggesting vernacular Scots English as the narrative voice slips into direct talk: "The nurse came out looked both ways an nodded at Fionnula who jamp up, Is she okay?" The English language is rule-breakingly adjusted to the environment. Miss Jean Brodie would hardly approve.

Vitality and sheer writerly surprise are the hallmarks on every page. The only Catholic overseer who is presented with any sympathy is the aspiring novelist, Father Ardlui, desperate for genuine or fake miracles. His "reductive style and dangerous vision" make him at times something of a stand-in for the author. Warner, too, is keen to find or create miracles, though his are more fleshly ones. The penultimate chapter, "Ice and the Pearl", includes the story of how Kay, who has to come to terms with her sexuality (not to mention the vomit in her schoolbag), recalls how her doctor once found a pearl embedded in her ear - "a mystery where it came from". Odd, off-balance moments like that characterise this novel's reeling poetry.

The Sopranos is calculatingly scandalous, wickedly funny, and shot through with a visionary vein. It takes the stereotype of the wild Highland barbarian, re-genders it, teens it, and sets it loose. Warner's girls are unforgettable. His song will not go away.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game