Alan Warner’s The Sopranos was given to me by a friend who thought I’d enjoyed it, given our shared taste for the boarding-school novel. The title refers to a group of teenage choristers from the Scottish Catholic girls school of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Bussed into the big city from their sleepy port town for a singing competition, the girls are let loose under strict instructions from the nuns not to do anything that will disgrace the school. No nail varnish is to be worn and the girls are to stay away from the park lest they be raped or murdered.
At first, I was taken aback by the book’s language, which is not only opaque in terms of dialect but also is a tumble of floating thoughts and shifting perspectives. It took a me a little while to find my way with it but before long I was hooked and suddenly the style stopped being jarring and started to feel entirely fitting.
Now I have to hand it to Alan Warner, for a middle aged man he writes a very authentic schoolgirl. The in-some-ways narrow existence of those who are penned in by watchful guardians, the small but vital rebellions of nail varnish and make-up, the getting changed into tarty clothes in toilets, the thirst for disgustingly strong concoctions of alcohol carefully concealed in the appropriate soft drinks bottles, the hunger for gossip – for something, anything to happen.
Warner is mindful of the beauty of teenage girls – their resilience, their reckless bravery, their moral flexibility. He really conjures up that peerless thing – the teenage friendship, its cackles, its warmth, its fierceness and, at the same time, its brittleness. He paints just one day in these girls’ lives and yet he gives you all of them, all those teenage years they are on the brink of breaking out of. Even if you were nothing like one of these wild sopranos, I defy any girl who grew up in the company of other girls to find nothing of herself in this book.
As the girls tear through the city, trouble abounds – the consequences sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic. Each girl is distinct and yet against the outside world they are an impenetrable pack. I hesitate to talk more about the details of their big day out for fear of spoiling the ride for you – better just to lurch from one escapade to the next as they do; better to just soak up the boozy, excitable atmosphere and remember what it was like to be sixteen and untethered from your chain for one brief day – back in those days when one day could feel as long as a lifetime.