The relationship between the author and the subject in fiction is always interesting. It’s natural for the writer to draw on his/her personal experience, but I am more impressed by the novelist that can create a character some distance from their own. This theme preoccupied me in the last two novels I read.
Its subject was writers and writing and Meg Wolitzer is a fluent and witty novelist. It begins with the wife of a celebrated American novelist travelling to Helsinki with her husband to receive a literary prize. On the plane she decides to leave her husband and reflects on her marriage with him.
It is clearly a personal statement and becomes rather a self-serving one.
So for all the insight into the writer’s world, other novelists and the description of Helsinki, which are all engaging, I found myself disliking the subject wife and therefore the novel for its self-absorption.
The central character is a girl called Morvern Callar. She is a 21 year old of some spirit who has a low income and prospect in the local supermarket that does not constrain her freedom of spirit.
The novel begins with the discovery of her boyfriend who has committed suicide. Her reaction to this is fairly appalling but she never loses my sympathy nor, I suspect, many readers. The novel is written in her own voice and I had to consult a highland friend to translate some of the argot.
The novel, Alan’s Warner’s first, is a triumph and by the end I found myself reading the end before I reached it to discover whether she survives. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the writer did have a relationship with the central character in real life, but if so he writes with her voice not his.
What is perhaps most extraordinary is that I found myself riveted by Morvern, even when she describes in some detail the mundaneness of her life. There is, for example, a long description of her painting her finger and toe nails. It’s a long time that I was so touched by a fictional character .
Despite calling itself in the title a tale, the novel is strongly autobiographical. I rather feel that feeling of “wont he ever shut up” when confronted socially by someone who talks only of himself. And I still have 475 pages to go.