Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
Alan Warner's first novel, Morvern Callar (1995), begins in the Scottish west- coast ferry port and rail terminus of Oban, but the town, the landscape around it and its general ethos are not immediately recognisable. Rather than make use of documentary realism, Warner imbricates his novel's references to actual time and place in a world of imagined timeless identities and relationships. The result is a sense of defamiliarisation that is also to be found in his later fiction, where the fundamentals of place, time, politics and power are contextualised to imply that all identities are in perennial relation, partial development, and a continual unresolved balance of conflict and disharmony.
The eponymous main character of Morvern Callar is a young woman who lives in Oban but is more familiar with the working-class areas, pubs, supermarkets and the day-to-day lives of people who live in the town than she is with the picturesque seafront and the ferries to the islands best known to tourists. Warner's defamiliarisation of Oban, and his non-judgemental attitude to Morvern's decision to abscond with her dead lover's book manuscript and pass it off as her own, set this novel apart from much contemporary Scottish fiction. Ultimately, though, she becomes an admirable figure, a character with whom we come to sympathise, in part because the defamiliarising setting of the novel confronts us with the need to examine our values as readers, then re-examine them later in the novel, when she moves to Spain.
Scotland is the setting for Warner's next novel, These Demented Lands (1997), and also for The Man Who Walks (2002), but not a Scotland easily recognised from historical or traditional realistic accounts. These two novels are surreal, unaccountable, visionary: dream landscapes shift into nightmares of pastoral fields and coastlines, seas and islands that are momentarily idyllic, then ragingly infernal. The bodily properties of individual characters and the geographical identities of the terrain they move through are permeable, tough, vulnerable, wounded and bleeding, pregnant and regenerative. Bodies are abused and torn in horrific and repulsive ways, yet the novels’ characters show resilience and resourcefulness in ways that could not be foreseen. Nothing is inevitable, except perhaps the motivation, the almost abstract priority of the quest, a commitment to discovery and the sometimes necessary practice of concealment.