Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

"On Hogmanay I was early at The Kale Onion Hotel. It's really called The Caledonian Hotel, but the 'D' fell off the big sign and they never ever bothered to fix it".

Morvern Callar (the name means “quieter silence”) stays with the reader.  We mean that metaphorically, and not literally, thank God.    You really wouldn’t want Morvern in your spare room.   Morvern drifts about the sort of dank industrial Scottish town that Isserley from Under the Skin haunts.  And Morvern is almost as detached and alien as Isserley.

“After the work Bill Nelson’s Red Noise was in the ears as I walked home.  On principle I never shopped at the superstore and I turned carrier bags inside out.  Up at the freezer shop I bought easy-cook pizza cause of the body on my scullery floor.

Back in the flat I chucked away the bit mail from model shops in the south.  Trying to get in the oven to heat the pizza.  His body caused the usual hassles but I soon had it underway.

Watching telly while eating you only saw men machine-gunning in a ruined town.  It was Yugoslavia then there was a picture of a girl human with the head missing.  I put off the channel and watched the video of Bad Lieutenant while trying the bits of the pedicure set.  I finished off using some Dusky Cherry on my toenails; my toes all splayed by the toe-dividers stuffed in between.

When Bad Lieutenant finished I did a big breath on account of the sadness of it.  I put Iron Path by Last Exit on the record player turned up to 8.  With the loft hook I tugged down the hatch.  I stretched and pulled the end of the ladder down to the floorboards then I climbed up into the darkness.  It was cold up there.  There was no bulb in the rafter fitting. I pressed:


The hum of the transformer came and I switched on Nighttimeness.”

Morvern, and everyone she knows is spinning in a hamster-wheel of poverty, learned helplessness and degeneracy.  She sucks at her job stacking fruit and vegetables at a supermarket and lives to “get mortal” and smoke Silk Cuts with her skank of a friend Lanna.  When her boyfriend, who has no name but is older and better educated than Morvern, kills himself she “greets” and “bubbles” for a bit (while remembering a woman who “bubbled” so much after her sons drowned that her eye fell out) but stores, and then disposes of, the body in a manner which only Morvern could have thought of.  It is one of the best aspects of the novel.  Morvern doesn’t really think about calling the police.  So why should you care?  Move on, will you?

We wonder if there is something “wrong” with Morvern.  She is naïve and certainly can’t think around corners. But, although Morvern  has neither ambition nor curiosity, she does have a strong will of an instinctive kind.  At first circumstances take her to a vile Youth Med in Spain but she then takes herself to the raves of the Mediterranean, committing fraud almost unconsciously to do so. And, to be fair, Morvern does not lack empathy (she feels sorry for the woman who lost her eye and the bad lieutenant, after all) and she would consider her particular crime to be “victimless” (if the word “moral” meant anything to her).  And, although Morvern can barely read and her narration is quotidian, she is alive to music and physical sensation.

The excerpt above is typical of the book, detailed and flat.  We learn a good deal about what Morvern eats, paints on her nails and – above all – listens to, but that is the beauty of the book.  It is like Morvern – affectless, uncomplicated, creepy and diabolically entertaining.  The use of dialect and Morvern’s own odd words, the absence of quotation marks, the lack of definite articles and the many nicknames (The Golden Binman,  The Shroud, J the Harbour, Lorne the Gas, Spook, The Dai Lama, The Seacow, Snowballs at the Moon)  give the prose a dreamy, rhythmic quality.

Lest you should be thinking that this book is too bleak for you, there is humour –

“The Panatine began laughing and snorting beer then he says, I was tripping away in the house after you’d left so I thought I’d make it to the bottom of the hill for a drink in the Lighthouse.  I’m going down the brae, dancing with the atoms, then I see this crawling smudge coming up the pavement towards me out of the dark.  As I get closer it looks like a man with a leg missing, pulling himself along the pavement with his fingers; and that’s what it is, poor old Cushion pulling himself homeward.

Aye.  Yon stuff made me feel so strange I left the pub and walked along the esplanade.  Thing is I believed I had my leg back and I could walk, so I took off my false leg and hurled it out into the water.  I can still see it spinning round and round with my shoe on the end; my best shoe too, says Cushion.

Everyone was in the hysterics and smiling.

Tell the young ones here how you killed our wife, Palatine shouted.”

All of the humour is of that sort – whisky injected into temples,  LSD dripped into pupils and deliberately self-inflicted third degree burns, you know.

The second part of the book, when Morvern leaves Scotland, is, as with almost all contemporary fiction, rather weaker than the first.  But this is a good and unusual book.  Do read it. Pay careful attention to the drownings, the whereabouts of Morvern’s fostermother’s grave and the lovely, surreal end chapter.  Then read the sequel, These Demented Lands, which we have reviewed here.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Smug of Glebe

    November 2, 2016

    After reading an Alan Warner, you generally have to thoroughly rinse your skull with soap (from the inside)

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