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.