At once risky and risqué, Alan Warner’s latest novel, a satire set in Thatcher’s Britain, is full of grim humour.
Alan Warner novel Their Lips Talk of Mischief, set in 1980s London, features tense love triangle
For the moment, at least, Alan Warner doesn’t seem interested in setting his books in the present. His previous novel, The Deadman’s Pedal, centred around a trainee train driver living in a fictionalised Oban, Scotland, in 1973, while Their Lips Talk of Mischief moves forward a decade, to 1984. Mostly set in and around high-rise flats in Acton, west London, during the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s government, it focuses on the friendship between Llewellyn Smith and Douglas Cunningham, two unemployed slackers who bond over a shared love of literature after a fateful encounter in an accident and emergency waiting room.
Cunningham, the book’s Scottish narrator, is attempting to hide out there because he’s homeless, while Smith, a charismatic Welshman, has recently had heart surgery and his stitches have burst. Oddly unperturbed by his predicament, Smith is soon sewn up again, whereupon he invites Cunningham to come live with him, his Irish girlfriend, Aoife, and their baby daughter, Lilly.
The Scot is hesitant, but off they go to Conrad Flats, picking up a takeaway en route. “I could conceive of no aspect of my arrival the Lady Of The House might cherish other than the curry,” Cunningham relates, but Aoife proves beatifically calm and welcoming. It’s Cunningham’s first impression of Smith’s ex-model girlfriend that plants a bomb we know will later explode. “I had seen that Aoife McCrissican was menacingly beautiful,” he tells us.
Though both Smith and Cunningham profess to be aspiring novelists, procrastination and mere talk of writing prevail. They discuss favourite first lines of novels, Cunningham declares his dislike of Henry James, and Smith asserts that “poets are okay for nicking similes off”. As he’s doubtless mischievously aware, this last line makes us wonder about the provenance of the similes Warner deploys here. Still, wherever it came from, “Her neck was as dry and fallen as an old wasp’s nest” is pretty good.
Naturally, the meat of the book’s plot is the developing situation at Conrad Flats. As Cunningham bonds with Aoife and her baby daughter, we begin to see that, as much as she loves the self-centred and unpredictable Smith, they’re dangerously mismatched.
Along the way, Warner writes beautifully about seemingly mundane settings – an unfashionable pub with a mainly aged clientele; a registry office – and introduces some vividly drawn secondary characters. Aoife’s friend Abby is a deliciously predatory fashionista, while Smith’s grandmother, Myrtle – we learn that it was she who brought Smith up – becomes satisfyingly three-dimensional when reminiscing about the war.
Myrtle does so at Cunningham’s request, and as she becomes lost in her memories, Warner works in a typically filmic set-piece, the old woman telling how, as a girl, she’d watched a German fighter pilot being pursued by a British Hurricane while she was hop-picking in rural Kent. Thus far, only Warner’s esteemed “chemical generation” debut Morvern Callar has been made into a film, but like his fourth novel The Man who Walks, Their Lips Talk of Mischief seems ripe for adaptation.
It’s a lesser-known fact that Warner wrote the liner notes for the Cocteau Twins’ compilation album, Stars And Topsoil, and intriguing references to popular music have studded his novels since his aforementioned debut. Pleasingly, Their Lips Talk of Mischief follows suit. Smith and Cunningham are obsessed with Bobby Goldsboro’s brilliantly dark, sugar-coated, end-of-innocence song Summer (The First Time), but they’re also partial to Britten’s Nocturnes and a bit of Iggy Pop.
These and countless other small details help Warner shape a world that’s intricate and quirky enough to be credible: Llewellyn gifts Aoife a tortoise named Lamborghini; the exploitative publisher Toby Hanson recruits Smith and Cunningham to write captions for a 1985-86 cat calendar, and there’s a brilliantly rendered passage in which Smith, Cunningham, Aoife and Abby do a runner from an Indian restaurant.
It’s the fallout from the latter event that finds Cunningham alone with Aoife at last, and Warner ratchets up the erotic tension as he flirts with romantic comedy. He does so without compromising his literary elan one iota, and the love triangle between Smith, Cunningham and Aoife soon takes on a darker, more resonant hue. There will be no Hollywood ending here; no nipped and tucked resolution.
Warner’s fine eighth novel is difficult to categorise. Part love letter to literature, part Jules et Jim and part Withnail And I, it has some critique of Thatcher’s Britain, but Warner’s primary concern is entertaining, surprising – and if at all possible – dazzling his readers. Though there’s a thrilling, cat-falling-out-of-a-window element to some of the risks that he takes, he always lands on his feet.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.