Morvern Callar is revolting. Throughout the entire novel, she doesn't lift a finger to help anyone unless it meets some greater need of her own. She expects other people to fit in with her lifestyle. She begs, steals, lies, fights and sleeps around. She chain-smokes Silk Cuts and gets mortal on diluted vodka. Between binges, she graces customers with her presence in the local supermarket. Yet despite everything, this young, selfish wastrel is strangely beguiling.
Morvern is an orphan, named after the Morvern Peninsula, a bleak and unpopulated lump of land overlooking the port of Oban. Her foster father, Red Hanna, is a trade unionist on the railway who likes being a medium sized fish in a small pond. And as small ponds go, Oban is pretty unadventurous. A town famous for its folly and its distillery, the ferries out to the islands, and being the end of the railway line. Morvern and her friends speak a strange, Argyllshire dialect of Scots and the older ones still speak Gaelic. They use this quaint speech to articulate their breathtaking lack of ambition, their lack of understanding or interest in the wider world, and their lack of compassion for one another. Alan Warner grew up in Oban and he convinces completely in his depiction of real life behind the touristy façade.
Alan Warner brings in repeated references to dance music - at times Morvern sets out the contents of mix-tapes she has made - and there are scenes at raves and parties. Yet for all this, there is an overwhelming sense of silence about the book. There are conversations but nobody ever says anything meaningful. We follow Morvern's inner monologue at times but it contains very few ideas and the odd occasional spark is quickly doused. Even when Morvern sobers up enough to see that fate has dealt her double aces, she focuses only on immediate gratification rather than strategic, long-term planning. It's hard to watch someone make so many, and such obvious, mistakes. Despite her unloveliness, the reader wants Morvern to make a right choice somewhere - the reader carries the torch of hope that Morvern is unable to hold for herself.
At times, the novel is tricky to follow. Scenes shift with little warning; time passes unnoticed. It does all make sense, though, and the discontinuities are all made clear within a few pages. And the Scots dialect does take some getting attuned to. But once in the swing of things, the reader can see that this is a beautiful, subtle book that defies expectations. It's also a surprisingly funny book, with laugh out loud mentions of the Kale Onion, Creeping Jesus, the driving examiner and bloke-swapping on the plane to Spain.
The ending sits oddly with the rest of the book - injecting a dose of the serious into proceedings. I wish I could say it is a hopeful ending, but mostly it is just very bleak.