From the Publisher
"Hilarious and brilliantly written . . . The Sopranos is a tour de force. Savage, crude and unexpectedly tender."-San Francisco Chronicle "
Alan Warner is burning brighter than the August midday sun over the Isle of Skye, and the reasons are clear enough. . . . It's a deliciously naughty tale."-Paper
"A writer of massive talent . . . While the novel's drunken scenes are hysterical and the dialogue hits every mark, [it is] marked by a sad tenderness for these spirited girls on the cusp of an uncertain adulthood. One wonders how a male writer managed to enter that peculiar world with such authority. . . . Brilliant."-Time Out
A friend of mine who used to live near a Catholic school told me how one day, as he was goofing around in the street with his brother (both were well into their 20s at the time), the ball they were tossing back and forth rolled straight to the feet of a gum-snapping 16-year-old Cleopatra -- with eyeliner out to there and a pleated uniform skirt hiked up to there. My friend looked at his brother: "You go get it."
Eventually, someone girded his loins and retrieved the ball -- as my friend tells it, the braver soul managed to stammer, "P-p-please -- could we have our ball back?" But the fact that the enterprise required so much psychic energy demonstrates a point: Hardly the dewy-fresh things they're made out to be, young girls can be scary as hell.
They can also be, as Alan Warner knows, incredibly touching. And sometimes it's the toughest and trashiest-mouthed ones -- the ones who wear layers of lip gloss and blusher like a barrier between them and the world -- who get to you the most. In his third novel, the Scottish writer gives us a cross-section of one manically atypical day in the lives of a group of Catholic schoolgirls. In the morning they leave their small, dull port town for a choir competition in the city, where they eat at McDonald's, shop for miniskirts and sexy shoes and drink as much liquor as they can hold. After the competition, the bus has them back home in time to worm, wriggle and flirt their way into the local watering hole (all of them are underage), where they're hoping to meet sailors from the submarine that's just docked.
Warner pushes the action forward with dialogue that skitters and hopscotches almost randomly. The girls speak in a randy shorthand that betrays both their awe of sex -- emotionally speaking, at least, it's still a mystery even to the pregnant ones -- and their eagerness to jump right in. One girl greets Orla, a classmate who's recently been treated for cancer, hugging her and telling her she looks great. "Ah hear you went to Lourdes and all?" she says, to which Orla replies, "Aye, didn't get off with a single guy."
For a man, Warner understands the hearts and minds of girls pretty well; a love scene in one of the girls' bedroom is astonishingly tender and awkward. But what's most remarkable about The Sopranos is the way Warner teases fully formed characters out of a whirlwind of chatter, flirtations and confessions of fears and longings. Each of the girls emerges as something more than a sketch -- the way that with just three judicious lines a charcoal drawing of a nude sometimes conveys more about its subject than a fussed-over painting does.
The Sopranos is a book about some very funny, very likable girls, but it's also a clear-eyed, unsentimental love letter to feminine teenagerhood itself. Warner offers his manifesto early on: "They've youth; they'll walk it out like a favourite pair trainers. It's a poem this youth and why should they know it, as the five of them move up the empty corridors?" To Warner, youth isn't something that's wasted on the young; it's an allowance that's theirs to spend as they wish. There are worse things to blow it on than Big Macs, microminis and the relentless pursuit of love. -- Salon
The Sopranos is a fully realized novel by a writer in total control of his subject... Warner's descriptions of the transcendent Scottish landscape, which featured so heavily in his first two books, have only gotten better.
Time Out New York
Michael Garry Smout
The Sopranos proved rather a playful, summer affair - hardly hot and sizzling - but sweetly memorable just the same...the novel ultimately succeeds despite its overtly commercial aspects.
[Warner] honors these girls' belief that the freedom they seek is waiting for them in purchasing a new skirt...even if he knows that belief is an illusion....Warner's portrait of squalid Scottish port town life is grimly believable. Too believable....[He's] not listening to all that his characters say.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hottie-tottie Scots girls slosh and snog their way through Warner's (Morvern Callar) bacchanalian novel wi' no a care for the Queen's English and with envious contempt for the "trendy-****ing-city-lassie fashion victims" they encounter on a choir trip to London. The Sopranos, appointed leaders and cool girls of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, chain-smoke and doctor their hems--and see the choir's trip to the capital to compete in the St. Columba Choirs final as an opportunity to drink themselves silly and add to the notches on their French Connection belts. Away from their small coastal town the convent girls wriggle free of their inhibitions, leaving their striking poverty, dysfunctional families and village gossip behind. Their youth and vulnerability (extreme and fiercely guarded) do not accord with what they've already had to bear. Orla, suffering from Hodgkin's Disease, has not long to live; Fionulla ("the Cooler") keeps secrets about her sexuality; Kylah's beautiful voice is squandered on the "shite" band she sings with; Manda's so poor her father reuses her milky bathwater; (Ra)Chell has lost her two daddies to the sea; posh Kay is a dark horse, thought to be a "swot" who studies hard and rats. The pathos of these pretty young things in tight skirts--"damaged goods," as one of the unsuspecting and peculiar men who falls in with them thinks to himself--seeps in between the cracks of the restless, reckless adventure Warner stages for them. In pub after pub they tell stories on each other and get into scrapes, maintaining the buoyant, sanguine arrogance of youth and sexual power. Satirical, too, Warner's novel takes a final twist that proves these blaspheming, Christsaking little Catholic girls know surprisingly well the value of one's word.
Imagine a female version of Heaven Help Us with a bit of Trainspotting thrown in, and you have a good sense of Warner's third novel (after Morvern Callar, LJ 2/1/97). Set in his native Scotland, it focuses on six members of the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour school choir as they head off to the big city to participate in a national vocal contest. While Sister Condron, or "Condom" as she is less than affectionately called by the girls, is determined to win, her charges are much more interested in drinking, dressing sexy, and "snogging" boys. Indeed, they are determined to lose so that they can get home in time to meet the sailors whose submarine has just pulled into port. Underneath their surface hilarity, Warner makes clear the hysteria that drives them--their fear and anger at "the whole charade [played by] a young, lovely girl, lost in a city, unknown as to what she really wants and too lonely to imagine." This is likely to be popular with teens and twentysomethings, though some Catholic readers may find its representation of the church rather offensive.--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
...[E]vokes rebellion, Catholic school-style, at a boisterous, fondly irreverent pitch.
A defiantly abrasive tale by Scots author Warner (These Demented Lands) chronicles the misadventures of a sextet of teenaged Catholic schoolgirls seeking excitement and dissipation.
Read an Excerpt
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls
No sweat, we'll never win; other choirs sing about Love, all our songs are about cattle or death!
Fionnula (the Cooler) spoke that way, last words pitched a little bit lower with a sexyish sideyways look at none of the others. The fifth-year choir all laughed.
Orla, still so thin she had her legs crossed to cover up her skinniness, keeked along the line and says, When they from the Fort, Hoors of the Sacred Heart, won the competition last year, they got kept down the whole night and put up in a big posh hotel and ... everything, no that I want that! Sooner be snogged in the Mantrap.
Know what the Hoor's school motto is? Fionnula spoke again, from the longest-legs-position on the wall. She spoke louder this time, in that blurred, smoked voice, It's 'Noses up ... knickers DOWN'!
The Sopranos all chorted and hootsied; the Seconds and Thirds mostly smiled in per-usual admiration. Quietly, so's only the Sopranos-half of the wall could hear, Fionnula goes, Look girls, the Hoors're no even IN it this year. Shows how chronic the standard is; we stick thegether on this and there's no ways we'll win, won't even get in the second round! We'll be plonked on the bus an back here in plenty time for the Mantrap slow dances and all manner of sailors' jigs.
That's IF submarin-ers are in the Mantrap. And that's IF we get past that new bouncer, he hasn't got off wi a single one of us! (Ra)Chell was calling out, just from along, where some taller Seconds and Thirds separated her.
(A)Manda Tassy recrossed her legs, looking a little uncomfortable, cleared her throat and announced, I've got in the Mantrap threeSaturdays running! Manda who could never afford cigarettes an was aye bumming them, placed one of her big sister's duty free Camels into her lips without even offering round, an from a pack of twenty!
Kylah squinted severely, though Manda was next her, Kylah went, That's cause you're the dying image of your big sister.
Are you JOKING Kylah? Manda blew smoke, Have you SEEN Catriona's suntan!
I'll no see a thing the day, Kylah muttered.
Orla giggled and smiled, her braces showed, Yon medallion man, the bouncer, he's only there cause he couldn't get a chef's job anywhere. He's from the Island. He'd get on well with Chell cause he has a love of animals; he can only tell the ages of sheep!
Aye, goes Chell, From behind.
Those within earshot laughed. Manda coughed.
Kylah, chortled, frowning up and down the line as if watching a fast tennis rally and says, The Island, where no horse is safe as long as there's a table or chair left!
Fionnula shrugged shoulders laughing, lit another cigarette an goes, As long as we ALL stick thegether. It was spoken as what it was: a warning to any Seconds or Thirds who might be taking the competition too seriously and who didn't have the priority of a night on the town later; it was a threat to anyone with delusions of grandeur.
The Sopranos leaned forward an looked at Kay Clarke from Seconds who, virtue of her limb-length, sat trapped, sombre and silent amongst them, then they glared down the length-of-legs school wall towards the short-arse end and Ana-Bessie.
Snobby Kay Clarke and Ana-Bessie Baberton fee-paying (their Old Men, one Port Solicitor, one Consultant up the Chest Infirmary) stared stubborn cross-square to the statue of JL McAdam, surveyor, advocate of tarmacadam and national hero. Kay and Ana-Bessie were aye willing to admit bursary girls like Fionnula had 'colourful character'. Inwardly, the two middle-class girls consoled themselves: Fionnula's legs were 'actually' too thin and there was always the fact Fionnula's parents only had a bought council house up the Complex.
The school wall afront the square, with its iron railings, curved round to the slope by the side entrance (the polishy-smooth stubs were the old iron bars, sawed off for the war effort in the forties); the upward slope of pavement delineated the precise order the choir aye sat in, 'ccording to the length of each girl's legs from arse on the old polished stubs down to the chewing- gum- blotched macadam.
CHOIR ORDER ON LENGTH-OF-LEGS SCHOOL WALL
Fionnula (the Cooler) Sopranos 35"
Kylah Sopranos 35"
(n.b. Fionnula (the Cooler) and Kylah an agreed First Equal but Fionnula always sits on outside.)
(A)Manda Tassy Sopranos 34 3/4'
Kay Clarke Seconds 34 1/2"
Yolanda McCormack Thirds 34 1/4"
Assumpta Thirds 33 1/2"
(Ra)Chell Sopranos 32 3/4"
Orla Sopranos 32 1/2"
Aisling Seconds 32"
Iona Seconds 31 1/2"
Shuna Thirds 30"
Fionnula (ordinary) Seconds 30 1/4"
English Katie Seconds 29 1/2"
Ana-Bessie Seconds 29 1/4"
Fat Clodagh Thirds 28 1/4"
Wee Maria Thirds 27 3/4"
On the flat, leaden school roof above the fifth-year choir and close to the speeding dawn clouds, Our Lady stood. Her sculpted shawl surmounted by an alert, perched seagull with a hooked, yellow beak — the cheeriest colour around. A scrawk from Lord Bolivia down in the New Chapel below, made the gull lean and fly forward off the BVM.
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour's dead, stone eyes were cast way over the teenagers below. The gaze looked above the slates of McAdam Square and the railway station clock, to the bay, beyond. She stared constant at some theoretical point, dependent on the angle of the reinforced concrete block Kirkham & Sons Construction had power-bolted her onto, year she descended down from heaven, under a Westland helicopter.
Her left arm was held out with a daft and neverending finality, offertory fingers appealing, though only ever receiving a tiny curlicue of sparrow's dropping; only ever delivering a slow sequence of rain drips to the sheered height way down onto the concrete playground below, where, every September, girls on their first day would bawl up to her: Don't jump things can't be that bad! Don't do it! Suicide's a sin.
That morning, the statue's rampant gaze drove across the surface of the port's baywaters as perusual but, it seemingly settled for once on the long black vessel now anchored there, even the communications aerials on the nuclear submarine's conning tower, no reaching above the cloud-looped summits of the distant island mountains.
Orla yawned, moved her hand over her still-short hair, looked at her palm as if still surprised. She yawned, poked a finger in to the back of her mouth, took it out again and proclaimed, Chell's right enough, wi these navies from all countries, yous never can be sure if they've shore leave. Those greeny uniform ones did, but yon last destroyer didn't and you never know if you can count on them going to the Mantrap; who's to no say they'll go get taxis out the Barn or somewhere we can't get to?
They always go to the Mantrap for a drink even if they do go on, some aye stay. And funny though if those last didnie come ashore how come Michelle McLaughlin still managed to get pregnant offof it!
A few cassandras of laugh tremelled along the wall.
From top the wall Fionnula burred, Aye, it's a disgrace if they don't come ashore and them signed to NATO an everything! She sighed.
Everyone laughed. Even the girls who wernie doing Higher History.
Spotty Fat Clodagh from right along yelled out, cross square, By the way Manda, Michelle did not get pregnant by yon destroyer, it was one the Pakistani lads come up for Saturday market in their van.
There was dubious silence. Cross square, two gulls crawed an tugged at a fat binliner on the pavement by the amusement arcade, boarded for offseason.
Rural depopulation? NO chance with Our Ladys about, Kay Clarke sighed.
Manda leaned forward and met eyes with Fionnula across Kylah's thighs, the look meaning: No that you'll ever contribute, you lightweight, university-bound virgin.
There is an old county council Ceil Meile Failte road sign just outside port, before you swing steering wheels round the high hairpin above the buspark. When Fionnula and Manda were Second Years they nicked a little pot Airfix paint offof Kylah's big brother Calum.
It was the time that First Year herself, a thirteen-year-old from Our Lady's got pregnant in the van, her bare back above the lifted blouse, sticking to the uncomfy cellophane-wrapped cartons. He was twenty-nine, refiller of cigarette machines, responsible for the entire West Coast!
Fionnula can still mind wearing their tight jeans and very white and pink trainers, being crouched up, faces close, gigglestifling in the dry ditch next the main road, then leaping out the gain when each last vehicle headlights passed and carrying on the handiwork with a make-up brush.
Then leaping back into the ditch as a great shift of headlight oozed round in the dark and them both cooried up, part of the tremulous, excited-feeling cause the vandalism, but also reaching for their own little, convexy belly-buttons snipped into shape by the National Health, knowing one day they would give in to some lad.
I read somewhere that submarine-ers...
Submariners, Fionnula grunted.
Submar-in-ers; that if they get a cut or something, cause they've been away under the waters for so long, it's done something to their ... (Wee Maria McGill, who'd once used Vanish soap stain-remover to try get a bad henna out, had kinda stumbled into this, but she just looked along to Orla and bravely soldiered on) ... Done something to their, blood.
Aye. Haemophilia. It's in Biology, Orla, who'd had chemotherapy, let Wee Maria go on.
Aye. Well if they get cut or that it won't stop bleeding for ages cause the air stuff they've been breathing down there.
There was contemplative silence then Orla spoke out their collective image, Aye! And when they submariners spunk with all their wanks down there, it just keeps coming out and coming out...
Everybody laughed cause it was Orla's crack.
... Inside their submarine - it would all just fill up with spunk and they'd all drown in it!
Ah, dinnae scum us out! goes Chell.
Here in their spunky grave lie the hundred brave sailors, Fionnula's voice came from top the wall.
We'll test it out the night girls! Manda's filthy laugh came.
Yolanda dropped her cigarette and yawned, Condom.
Nine or ten limbs of the smokers, all in flesh-coloured tights, with socks pulled up above the knee to make the legs appear longer, pulverised half-smoked cigarettes into the tarmac pavement. Each black, flat-bottom shoe that did the grinding, sported completely different, luminous, day-glo, interwoven, painted or rainbowy laces: the only means of self-expression remaining.
Various novelty lighters that played tunes (ironic wedding marches and Lambadas) B&H, Regal, Embassy, Marlboro reds and Light, Silk Cut and Yolanda's Lambert & Butler! All packs of ten, part from Manda, were returned to suspiciously full backpacks. Some cigarettes were rapidly nibbed then slipped into the secret, folded hems of the specially shortened tartan skirts.
Orla grit her teeth, bared her retainer braces in a fake smile, says, Look at her walk, its like she's got the most gi-normous sanitary towel jammed between her legs.
Carrying her famous blue bucket, today full of parental consent forms and her own choral arrangements, held wind-safe under a hefty nineteenth-century bible, Sister Condron approached cross McAdam Square, beneath the collapsing and hanging dramatics of dawn clouds.
Aisling was mumbling, I'd a dream like that.
What? Shuna goes, but smiling straight ahead.
You know? A guy got handjobbed offof me and it not stopping, it just gushing an gushing out, goggles, whole goggles of it just gushing an gushing out filling ma bedroom an just knowing mum would find out!
Kay Clarke goes, I'll look that up in my Freud Dream Dictionary. Don't know what I'll look under.
Try Wanker, Manda coughed.
Fionnula spat out a laugh.
Good morning girls.
MORNING SISTER CONDOM. Perfectly synchronised, each of the sixteen girls slithered off the wall to lengthen the look of their specially shortened skirts.
Sister Condron breached the kerb, canted, swayed, straightened, spoke: All together, Forth Let The Cattle Roam! She dropped the bucket, lifted one arm pointing at heaven.
Sister, it's half eight in the morn, Fionnula snapped.
So Fionnula McConnel. Is your voice still in your bed?
Ana-Bessie and Kay Clarke alone giggled.
In a bland, soft whisper, Manda says, Good King Wenceslas.
Fionnula let out a spirtle of crack-up, waggled her tongue, looked left and right, eyes away wi it then says, One, two, three. The Sopranos sung in the tight dawn air, an immediate beauty, like flags cracking in the wind. The sound moved cross square:
The snow lay round about
Good King Wenceslas
Last looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
The snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
NO. GIRLS! FORTH LET THE CATTLE ROAM.
But recalling December humiliations on Port streets with stupid hats on, the Seconds joined the Sopranos in a two-parter, cuddled in the neath, the Thirds waited and bassed the thing, even splitting the carol, messing about with a four-parter, looking each other in the eye to keep silent times.
A window canted out cross square, a night shifter fro the Alginate just a-bed leaned out roaring, Christmas so soon? Fuckin shut it ya wicked wee Catholic heathens.