(My lovely friend Susanne is filling in for me today as I recuperate from a nasty bout of Tennis Elbow despite not having touched a tennis racket in more than a decade. Make her feel welcome and enjoy the bookage.)
If I were a proper writer of reviews, I imagine it would be easier to review things you felt ambivalent about. This would let you be dispassionate, fair and helpful to your reader: I can’t be any of those things about this book. I have read all of Alan Warner’s novels and have generally felt underwhelmed by them. Morvern Callar stands out because it has such a simple and effective premise (one of those novels you curse not having dreamt up yourself). The Sopranos stands out because it makes your life just a little more worthwhile having read it.
The Sopranos follows the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour girls’ school choir from their small Scottish town to the big city, for the national choir finals, and back again (hopefully in time to pick up some submariners in The Mantrap, their local dive). It is replete with all the things a book about teenage girls on the town should be: drugs, booze, sex (of all different varieties – regretted, rejoiced, imagined, and desired) and best of all, there is no moral to the tale. It is such a pleasure to read an author who doesn't stand in judgment of his characters, particularly when their lives mirror so well the real lives of many teenage girls. Written in a Scots dialect replete with slang and without the benefit of standard punctuation, it can be a difficult book to get your head around: it is well worth the effort. Punctuation remains a mystery to me and I have long since decided that it should exist to serve the writer’s purpose. For me, Warner’s decision to lump direct speech right in with the narrative makes the book feel much more immediate. It’s intimacy means The Sopranos can be an awkward read at times, but it is often a very beautiful one.
Initially, the style of writing makes it difficult to discern the individual girls, but it is in his ability to create characters that Warner’s true genius lies. I have lost count of the times I have exalted the author’s ability to have begotten these immaculately conceived Catholic schoolgirls. How a thirty four year old Scottish bloke could so perfectly envision these young women is uncanny and attests to his formidable talent and imagination. Through their journey we get to know each of the girls as they introduce us to the myriad of issues facing young people: sexuality, mortality, poverty, teenage pregnancy, addiction, abuse… None of these characters is perfect, and they are frequently obnoxious, but their vulnerability is always appreciable, making them easy girls to care about.
There are a lot of books that I love enough to read over and over again; there are a very few books that I love enough not to want to: this is one. For me, this book was an epiphany and I would hate to find fault with it. I hadn’t realized how significant the people and places I grew up around actually were. These girls are anything but ordinary and well-deserve their place in literature. The Sopranos is all the words I’m trying so hard to avoid: poignant, profound, evocative… and so much more besides.
A word of caution: if you love this novel beware the sequel…
*(Susanne Crichton hails from Glasgow Scotland, has traveled extensively and is currently raising two glorious daughters in a Monterey, California. She couldn't be arsed to write her own bio, as she wasted her one brief reprieve if the day swilling wine in the bathtub while Dinosaur Train was on.)