Girl, uninterpreted

Morvern Callar

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Feb 17, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

If you arrived home to find your boyfriend had slashed his own throat, shortly after chopping his own hand off with a machete, what would you do? Probably, not the same as Morvern Callar does. She switches on her walkman, steps over him (avoiding the blood) and carries on as if nothing has happened: tidying the body when it becomes necessary, keeping her shift at the local supermarket, and going out drinking with her best friend Lanna. Only later does she discover that, along with a suicide note and all his money, her boyfriend has left her a book, waiting on the computer's hard drive to be published. There's even the beginnings of a publishing contract. All she has to do is print it out, maybe changing the name on it first.... Oh, and there's the matter of the body as well, of course.

In a dialect-heavy style popularized by Irvine Welsh and Alasdair Gray among others, Alan Warner lets Morvern drag us stumbling through the sleepy, characterful village where she grew up and lives; to Spain in search of music, a scene, that intangible togetherness of which ecstasy convinces; and to London, for the more down-to-earth motive of passing off her boyfriend's book as her own. Her uncomfortably close, semi-sexual relationship with Lanna waxes and wanes, strengthened by the prospect of a holiday, weakened by accusations of infidelity. Morvern, though, remains utterly impenetrable, like a puzzle with a piece missing. Indeed, explanatory chunks of this novel seem to be absent: perhaps Morvern, conjured beside Warner's writing desk, removed incriminating passages herself in a fit of mischief. It's a shame, because the remainder is enjoyably macabre and threatening in a Lynchian mode. But it's also infuriatingly aware of its own mysteriousness, and is equally Lynchian in that it reads like its plot arc was cut down in its prime.

Morvern is in some ways a Holly Golightly for the 1990s, transplanting the brittleness of Capote's heroine into rave scenes, explicit sex and Club 18-30 holidays. But for Morvern there is no moment of true fragility that might hook the sympathies of the reader. When the emotional distance is reduced---during her biggest row with Lanna---the intellectual distance is in a way increased to compensate, as one has to rapidly reassess all her actions and reactions so far. At one point a Spanish hotel clerk lets slip that "callar" translates as "to not speak", and Warner is probably using him to lay his own cards on the table: Morvern's allure lies in the thoughts she leaves undeclared. But in such behaviour as hers there's a fine line between Callar and callous. Perhaps in those chapters and pages, that we can only guess at by their stark absence, we're actually told which one she really is.