Scottish writer Alan Warner’s novel Their Lips Talk of Mischief is a boisterous, vigorous and energetic novel about two literary wannabes (Lou and Douglas) living in a glum 80’s Thatcherite slumland in Britain. The pair share an interest in Lou’s enigmatic and sexy girlfriend Aoife. Thus develops a complex menage a trois that follows.
The year is 1984 and the novel’s protagonist Douglas has dropped out of UCL’s literature programme to shuffle around, drink lots of beer and be a slacker.
After Douglas spends the night in A&E pretending to be ill (he’s really homeless), he encounters Lou for the first time and they quickly realise that they could be perfect poetry bums together.
Douglas joins Lou, his girlfriend Aoife and their baby Lily in a ramshackle council flat.
The duo then spend a considerable amount of the book in The Bells, a pub where they shoot the shit, try to avoid having altercations with the pubs more senior regulars, and eventually become a part of the furniture.
The pub-going atmosphere is perfectly captured in this excerpt:
“A random quietness would suddenly materialise in the centre of that great pub space. One of the old fellows would hulooo across to Lou then speak a few words and we would call back ourselves across the distance: a few words only and no more. Our day’s course set at our tables, we were all like passing boaters on some inland waterway, calling through a slight mist from one vessel to another.”
After some time the pair encounter the yuppie City type called Toby – a publisher of crappy cat calendars. Toby dons suede gloves and designer coats and commissions to pair to write amusing captions for some cat calendar. This is the extent of their literary forays, which remain sadly abstracted from reality.
This is a novel for anyone who has survived their 20’s in slummy, sub-standard housing. It’s for anyone who has had a crush on a housemate’s partner. For young people with empty bank balances but heads full of dreams. It’s for the crowd with zero ambition, save for ingesting drugs and alcohol and finding a way to get laid.
It’s a book for anyone who wondered how they would finally escape from the twilight zone of young adulthood and into the hallowed ground of responsible adulthood – yet survive with more than one brain cell intact.
For all of its gritty urban poverty there’s a mellifluous romance running through this book that comes from the heady, sex-fuelled youthful encounters in it. Exciting sex is always a good consolation prize if you’re poor, jobless and down on your luck, and so it is for these characters. This is a ballad of youth and young manhood that anybody with a heartbeat and a chequered history can understand and sympathise with.
In less capable hands, a book about these themes would seem cliched and tired, but in the hands of Alan Warner this is an instant classic bildungsroman.