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In which Netty reacquaints herself with Morvern Callar, but finds she liked her better the first time around …

September 3, 2013

ImageIt’s very rare that I see a movie adapted from a book before I read said book. But that is what happened in 2002, when Scottish writer Alan Warner’s acclaimed debut Morvern Callar was turned into a film, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring the sublime Samantha Morton in the title role.

I read the book – which differs slightly from the movie, in that the structure is far less linear, the character of Morvern is even more morally dubious, and a late-novel event that may or may not have happened outside of Morvern’s imagination is (thankfully) left on the cutting-room floor. But I enjoyed the film and novel in about equal measures, and I soon sought out Warner’s second novel, the 1997 follow-up, of sorts, These Demented Lands. Which has laid untouched on my bookshelf until, well, now.

I really wanted to reread Morvern Callar after finishing These Demented Lands, but I have recently moved – which included moving seven (count ‘em) bookshelves and their contents – and I have so far been unable to track down the wee Scottish lassie. Possibly I lent it to someone eons ago and never got it back. I really gotta start keeping a list …

Authors, much like bands, are also prone to the sophomore syndrome – that is, falling somewhat flat on one’s second effort in the face of oft-stifling expectation. Certainly, there is a whiff of that about These Demented Lands. Warner has since published another five novels; a couple of these are prestigious award winners, one even made the Man Booker long list. And he has not relinquished his most famous character – Morvern makes appearances in subsequent books and, indeed, is one of the two narrators in These Demented Lands.

Personally, I think the book’s publishers should have been a little less effusive and obvious on the jacket; it would have been preferable – and a far more effective writer’s ploy – if the reader did not know the first narrator is Morvern. It is not until the final page that she is actually named, but it’s right there among the critiques on the back cover, and strongly hinted at in the inside jacket. Spoilsports.

Warner, much like fellow Scottish luminary and peer Irvine Welsh, mines his homeland and its wealth of characters, the ‘90s rave scene and drug culture in his writing. Welsh is not an author I’ve got much time for; I think he is vastly overrated, and what I’ve read – or more specifically, tried to read – of his books I’ve found largely insufferable. Warner is a far better prospect.

Other reviewers have bemoaned the lack of continuity – and consistency – in Morvern’s voice between the first and second books; it’s been a good while since I previously read Morvern Callar (I recall reading it twice in quick succession), but I remember quite clearly the feisty, independent, amoral character. There are still flashes of the original Morvern in her depiction in These Demented Lands; if she comes across as a little more subdued, certainly her circumstances are different across the two novels. But the voice is nowhere near as original, as bracing, as memorable as the initial outing – which piques my curiosity as to how the character evolves in subsequent novels and what fate lies in store for her.

The plot certainly takes a very distant second place to the characters in These Demented Lands; there is not always a lot of back story, motivation or linear trajectory, although Warner does an almost-too-obvious job of rounding up the various characters at novel’s end and wrapping up their respective tales. It is more the sort of book in which you abandon and immerse yourself, rather than trying to figure out what may (or may not) be happening. Warner certainly has a talent for prose, a distinct way with words, a knack for the descriptive – and also for the not-infrequent gross-out.

As the book opens, our unnamed female narrator – OK, Morvern – is crossing from the mainland to the islands (pardon my ignorance, but I’m not well versed in Scottish geography) on an ill-fated journey on the ferry Psalm 23 (which, if my memory of long-ago RE classes serves me correctly, is the “Lord is my shepherd” one; religious allegory abounds throughout these pages). She manages to save herself, and a young, one-eyed blonde child, from the sinking, before setting off on a three-night journey across glen and dale – aided and abetted by a cast of strange characters – looking for The Drome Hotel, a honeymooners’ resort owned and run by the mythical, slightly sadistic John Brotherhood.

The Drome, situated next to an airstrip that flies the honeymooning guests in and out, famously was the site of a dual light-plane crash some 10 years previously that claimed the lives of two pilots – and is the singular obsession of the Aircrash Investigator, the novel’s second, only slightly more reliable narrator. Attracted to, and yet repelled by, Morvern, the Aircrash Investigator tries to warn her off The Drome – think a very, very black Fawlty Towers filtered through the hyper-real imagination of David Lynch – and its sinister proprietor, who turns out to be all too human. But as the book unfolds, Morvern’s purpose for seeking out the unlikely setting is revealed as a mission of revenge, which culminates in a millennial rave party to remember – for all the wrong reasons. As the Aircrash Investigator tells Brotherhood earlier in the novel, the answers are always in the wreckage,

I’m still in two minds about These Demented Lands. I strongly suspect a reader having stumbled across it without having first read Morvern Callar – or being completely oblivious to it – would be inclined to rate it more highly than those familiar with our girl Morves. And if that is the case, said reader will be blown away by the eponymous book. But being in the latter category, I’m just mildly impressed. It’s no Morvern Callar, but it’s not half bad.

I suppose.

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