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Review: The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry is Iain Banks’s final novel, finished off after he received the news that he was dying of a rare metastatic gall bladder cancer. That background, combined with the fact that I’ve loved many of Banks’s previous novels, makes it hard to write a fair review. But I will try.

The plot is straightforward: Guy, father to teenage Kit, is dying of cancer. Guy invites his old friends to stay with Kit and him, for something resembling a pre-death wake. The relationships between the friends are explored, and their shared past is raked over. The plot, however, is almost irrelevant. It is the detailed characterisation, perfect dialogue and evocative description which do all the work in this novel. The plot is almost beside the point.

The first Banks novel I read was the first he wrote: The Wasp Factory. The Quarry shares much with The Wasp Factory: both are Bildungsromans exploring the nature of the relationship between a strange father and a strange son. This is the sort of thing Banks excels at, as I mentioned in my review of Stonemouth earlier this year. The Quarry is much less extreme than The Wasp Factory: the father is a dying misanthropic bastard rather than a lifelong pathological sadist, and the son appears to have a mild form of autism rather than being a psychopathic murderer. Both The Wasp Factory and The Quarry explore themes of ritual and religion in some depth, as well as the fine line between life and death.

But this is not The Wasp Factory. It isn’t a Gothic powerhouse of a novel featuring graphic murder and torture at every turn. Like Stonemouth, it’s a quiet, subtle novel that explores the absurd horror of everyday life without resorting to comically dark metaphor. The mirror it holds to the absurd swords of Damocles of our pasts and the cruelty of death is plain, rather than comically warped. What this approach loses in shock-factor power, it gains in poignancy.

As always with Banks, the characterisation and dialogue are just outstanding, and the black humour is second-to-none. As always, his prose flows like nobody else’s. His talent as a writer was so obviously superlative that discussing it seems superfluous.

The Quarry is a brilliant novel, and one that I know I’ll turn back to and read again, and – like all of Banks’s work – probably find a whole other level to enjoy on a second reading. Banks was a literary genius. That this is his last novel is a tragedy. I will miss him.

The Quarry is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,085th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Iain Banks, one of my favourite authors, died earlier this week aged just 59. The world has lost a literary genius. With that in mind, it felt inappropriate to write about any other author’s work this week. This isn’t a proper review, more just a collection of thoughts on Banks’s most famous work.

I’ve never really enjoyed science fiction, but I’m a big fan of most of Iain Bank’s non-scifi novels. The Wasp Factory was his first, and I think probably his greatest (though it’s a close call between this and the rather different Whit).

The Wasp Factory tells the story of Frank, an adolescent living with his eccentric single father on a Scottish island. Frank’s brother is in a psychiatric hospital. Frank himself is, to say the least, severely maladjusted, taking part in bizarre sacrificial rituals of his own making, and expressing negative emotions through extreme violence, and occasionally murder.

It’s a modern Gothic character study, with such evocative description in some scenes that they evoked a physical response in me – and I think this is the only book I’ve ever read which has had that effect. Frank serves as the psychologically flawed first-person narrator, which provides for the deeply disturbing normalisation of grotesque horror, but also for perhaps the darkest and funniest moments of black levity in any of Banks’s books.

This is a novel which really rewards re-reading because of the number of different levels on which it plays, and the number of themes it explores: power and abuse, psychiatric illness, identity, and loneliness to list just some of the more prominent. There is a “big twist” at the end of The Wasp Factory which might discourage re-reading, but, in fact, the knowledge gained from the ending sets out a whole other level for the reader to explore within the narrative. I’ve read it quite a number of times, and have read individual passages even more.

This was also the first book I gave to Wendy, some time before we started dating. In hindsight, it may well be one of the world’s least romantic books, but it evidently didn’t put her off me too much!

The edition I have is also unusual for displaying quotes from reviews that are highly critical of the book, alongside the more positive ones. That felt like a brave yet endearing decision. It’s probably also a fairly successful marketing ploy: I can’t remember a single one of the cover quotes from any other books I’ve read, yet can remember some from this volume which I first read well over a decade ago.

The Wasp Factory is only a couple of hundred pages long, but it’s a couple of hundred pages that’s stayed with me for a long time. If you haven’t read it before, I hope that you will. It stands as testament to the genius of its creator, who will be sorely missed by legions of fans.

* * * * *

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 2,027th post was filed under: Book Reviews, , .

Weekend read: An interview with Iain Banks

On Wednesday, Iain Banks revealed that he has terminal cancer, and likely only months left to live. I’ve long been a fan of Banks’s mainstream novels, and believe him to be one of the UK’s greatest literary talents. My thoughts are with him, his wife, and his family.

As this sad news reached me, I recalled an old interview I’d read online with Banks about how he writes. I’m always fascinated to read about authors’ methods, and this is ground Banks – like any prolific author – has trodden in promotional interviews many times over. For some reason, this short 2008 interview by Nick Ryan, originally for The South China Morning Post of all places, stuck in my mind. And so that’s my recommended read this weekend.

This 2,006th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Review: Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I’ve previously enjoyed a lot of Iain Banks’s work. His first novel, The Wasp Factory, is a work of gothic brilliance that I loved even before I went on to study it at A-Level. And it’s possibly the only book I’ve ever studied that I haven’t ended up hating as a result!

That said, I’m not a fan of science fiction, and so I don’t enjoy his Iain M Banks science fiction, and didn’t like his cross-over book Transition. I think Banks excels in coming-of-age novels of self-discovery, like the aforementioned Wasp Factory, Whit (which I always want to call Isis), and The Crow Road. If we’re going to get all A-Level English about it, I enjoy his bildungsroman. Or possibly his entwicklungsroman. I’ve forgetten the difference.

Whichever it is I enjoy, Stonemouth happily nestles within the genre. It’s a simple story of coming home, facing demons, and growing. Stewart Gilmore returns to Stonemouth, the small Scottish town of his birth, for a funeral. He’s previously been run out of town by a local gang following an incident revealed only late in the novel, and possibly not entirely deserving of the lengthy build-up and sense of forboding.

This is Banks at his best, so there’s plenty of darkness, and dark humour in spades. The strength of this novel is the relative mundanity of the darkness: nobody explodes, nobody floats away with a bunch of balloons, and nobody’s brain is eaten by maggots. Granted, there is a little defaecation on a golf-course, but there’s nothing in this novel that pushes the boundaries of plausability too far. As with some of Banks’s previous novels, the strength is in the evocation of gothic themes within contemporary life.

The story is engaging, and the characterisation is great, with that uniquely evocative description which is a hallmark of Banks’s work. In fact, the characterisation here is so deep even amongst the minor characters that I could readily enjoy a return to Stonemouth at some point in the future, with a plot centered around some of those other characters.

Normally, Banks’s prose pours from the page. I don’t know of any other writer that pulls off the same trick. Sentences are so carefully constructed that they rarely need to be re-read. The dialogue is natural and flowing. There’s simply no effort to reading his novels. However, in this book, I kept ‘tripping over’ the pop culture references littered through the book. I have no idea why Banks feels the need to discuss iPhones, MacBooks, Family Guy, Cee Lo Green and the like so often. They don’t add to the characterisation, and don’t sit comfortably with Banks’s prose, and their inclusion feels like an odd decision which will serve only to make the book date very quickly. It’s a relatively minor quibble, but it is a little irritating.

All things considered, I thought Stonemouth was great. Other reviewers have criticised it for retreading old ground. That’s probably fair, but I can’t honestly say that it affected my enjoyment. This is the first novel I’ve read in quite some time that I’ve felt a little disappointed to have finished. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Stonemouth is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 1,955th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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