Morvern Callar by Alan Warner – Book Review

Some books seem to possess a long-lasting hold over your imagination, and I just keep coming back to this deeply strange, macabre and lyrical novel. This must be the fourth or fifth time I re-visited it over the years, and somehow it managed to leave me with a different impression every time.

The most striking thing about the book is its inscrutable heroine, a 21-year-old girl who lives in an unnamed Scottish port town and stacks supermarket shelves for a living, a dead-end job she had since the age of thirteen. One morning just before Christmas, Morvern discovers that her much older boyfriend (referred to only as Him) has committed suicide in their apartment by slitting his throat. She reacts by… opening his presents, going to her dreary supermarket job as per usual, then diving into partying, drugs and casual group sex. Later, she hides the dead body in the attic, and much later, when the warmer weather makes the situation problematic, she hacks it into pieces and buries them in different natural spots around the town. Morvern also discovers that her late boyfriend had written a novel, and she decides to appropriate it and pass it off as her own.

Morvern’s flat and detached first-person narration is both unsettling and fascinating. She only ever describes what she sees or does, in painstaking detail, but never her thoughts or emotions, almost as if she’s observing herself from the outside. A sort of wave of something was going across me is pretty much the most you get in terms of emotional expression. It’s hard to know how to interpret it all: is Morvern numb or in shock after what happened? Is she just a sort of person who is completely detached from her own emotions and never pauses to think about the consequences of her actions? How to take her later escape into the pleasures of beach lifestyle and rave parties, as a sort of liberation or an attempt to further numb herself? Regardless, Morvern’s unreflective voice, somehow both knowing and naive, is certainly unique and original. Quite often, she displays a great sensitivity to the beauty of her surroundings, noticing the evocative details most would miss, and she lives her life to the beat of the 90s dance music (the novels is strewn with the lists of tracks and mixtapes).

The novel evokes a vivid sense of small-town hopelessness; in Morvern’s world, there’s a curious equality between the young and the old, since all of them seem equally trapped in grey lives with no real prospects. Morvern’s narration is also strongly colloquial and it’s fun to decipher the meaning of some Scottish expressions (greeting = crying). In terms of conventional plot, Morvern Callar might frustrate some readers with its meandering story where things don’t unfold like you’d expect them to – Morvern’s theft of the novel for instance, which in a different book could have been played like a thriller, is not as consequential as you’d presume, though it does result in a hilarious and satirical night out with a couple of London publishers.

Morvern is not someone who asks to be “liked”, and neither does this book really, but it’s clearly cast a spell on me and I can easily see myself submitting to its haunting pull once again in a few years’ time.

P.S. I’ve yet to see the film by Lynne Ramsay starring Samantha Morton as Morvern, which is reputed to be one of those rare as-good-as-the-book onscreen adaptations.

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