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
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
people

Far-right organisation has defended its actions on Facebook

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music

Animal welfare charities have urged the boy band to cut the scenes

News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
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

    EYFS Teacher

    £21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - Benf...

    English Teacher

    £4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

    Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

    Science Teacher

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker