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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.

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