Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.
A lonely, beautiful novel whose narrative voice will wow you and unsettle you in equal measure. Morvern Callar is a twenty-one-year-old girl who works in a supermarket in a run-down Highlands port town (probably some version of Oban); she wakes one morning before Christmas to find that her boyfriend has killed himself in their apartment. The distant, carefully-described way she reacts to this event is, in a sense, at the heart of the novel's fascination, certainly its initial pull on the reader. Like someone from an Icelandic saga, she describes her actions but not her emotions; ‘a sort of feeling went across me’ is about the most we are ever given.
You might see her as numb or in shock; you might with equal justification find her psychotically detached. But she is riveting. By turns naïve and knowing, undereducated but sure of what she wants, her voice is direct, colloquial, dialectal, instantly believable.
It was a dead clear freezing day with bluish sky the silvery sun and you saw all breath.
Uninterested in art or literature (her dismissal of novels is one of the many ironies of this, a first novel), she is however encyclopaedic on contemporary dance music; the text is shot through with track titles and mixtape listings, and there are several hypnotic scenes in clubs that made me feel exhausted and about a hundred years old. When the book came out, Warner was pegged with Irvine Welsh as part of some imagined new wave of Scottish ‘rave novelists’ but, really, it's James Kelman's quotidian, Scots-inflected narrative voices that are the more obvious influence here.
The narrative voice in this case is amazingly unreflective for a novel, focused only on facts and descriptions. These come out in a patois all her own that makes heavy use of blurring suffixes like -ish and -y and nominalisations in -ness. ‘Stars were dished up across all bluey nighttimeness,’ she says, looking at the sky. But this idiom is still capable of all kinds of gentle insights:
I woke and felt queerish. I could tell it was nighttime by the type of voice on telly.
The ‘cross-writing’ in particular hasn't worked for everyone – Warner has been criticised in some quarters for lacking the skill, or even the moral right, to adopt the voice of a young woman. I don't agree, but I do think Morvern's obsession with her own anatomy, clothing and personal hygiene might lead you to guess that her author is a man. In some books this can be charming, but I confess here I did find it a little unsettling. Still, in general I would maintain that this kind of ‘appropriation’ or ‘colonisation’ is really the whole point of fiction, and it's certainly one of the central themes of this novel.
A film adaptation from Lynne Ramsay in 2002 did a great job of capturing the poetic beauty of the novel, but it committed the cardinal sin of making Morvern Callar English, which I couldn't understand – it's not just that you lose the Scottishness of the central voice, but that part of what the book seems to be about is quite specifically being Scottish, growing up there, leaving Scotland, how Scotland relates to Europe. These themes make it an appealing novel to revisit at the moment, though its qualities are likely to speak to you any time, anywhere.
And this despite the fact that Morvern Callar herself is rather a quiet presence in the book: another of its ironies is that her story can seem so articulate, and of something that could not be expressed in standard English, while she as a character is almost mute at times – numb with shock, overwhelmed by friends, silenced by society. ‘Callar,’ Morvern is told by a receptionist at a Spanish resort – ‘ah, it means, ah, silence, to say nothing, maybe.’ Maybe not.