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The Crow Road

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The Crow Road by Iain Banks. I was somewhat surprised to realize that this will be the sixteenth Iain Banks book put on the shelves of books that have been read (as opposed to the unread/ to-be-read/ bought-it-years-ago-and-am-never-likely-to-read-it-but-can’t-bear-to-get-rid-of-any-books-ever shelf). That’s not a record or anything– we’ve got way more Rex Stout than that, more Pratchett than that (though those are scattered around a bit), and Brust is in the same neighborhood. It’s just that Banks is a somewhat weightier read than the other authors in the mid-teens.

I bought this one a couple of years ago, in Bordeaux, France, of all places, but somehow never got around to reading it. Of course, the opening paragraph is the stuff of legend:

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

How I managed not to continue with this, I’m not sure.

Surprisingly, this is one of the rare examples of the Nice Iain Banks. Death figures prominently in the story– I seem to recall it being described as “four funerals and a wedding”– but none of the deaths are gratuitously nasty. It’s hard to believe this is the work of the same twisted individual who wrote The Wasp Factory and Complicity, to say nothing of the deeply unpleasant A Song of Stone.

And yet, there’s a wit to it, and a dark humor that is unmistakably Banks. Most of the books is told from the point of view of Prentice McHoan, the aimless middle son of an affluent Scottish family, and his cynical take on the world generates one good quip after another. Other bits focus on other members of Prentice’s family; these don’t have the same kind of biting wit, but instead have a sort of clever warmth that’s really quite charming.

It’s a very Scottish book, meaning that some parts of it are incomprehensible to benighted Americans like myself (and also that the sex-and-drugs bits read sort of like a less squalid Irvine Welsh, without the annoying phonetic dialect), but on the whole it’s a pretty easy read. Categorizing it is a little trickier– it’s partly a sprawling family saga, and partly a shiftless coming-of-age story (Banks does Nick Hornby), but there’s also an odd romance, and a murder-mystery plot tacked on near the end.

The book covers a large chunk of time, and quite a bit of space, and ends up not being entirely coherent. The ending feels oddly rushed with the murder-mystery bit feeling tacked on to spice things up a bit. There’s also some peculiarly British political ranting that struck me as a little dated (what I could follow of it, anyway), a fairly ham-handed bit passionately advocating atheism, and I really could’ve done without the “signalling” scene at the end.

What it lacks in plot, though, it makes up for in writing. Banks is an extremely clever author, and can make even fairly mundane family troubles seem fascinating (and Prentice’s family troubles are not what you’d call mundane). This is a fairly ragged book, especially compared to the highly polished Look to Windward, or the tightly controlled Use of Weapons, but Banks’s writing chops are clearly on display.

I wouldn’t rank this with his best– it’s a little too raw to stack up with the best of the Culture books– but it’s also not the sort of brutal assault on the reader that led to such entertaining review blurbs for The Wasp Factory. If you want to see Banks plying his craft, but aren’t in for deeply disturbing violence, this is well worth reading.

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel

  • Phillip Winn

    What an opening sentence! How did you ever manage to not keep reading? I will certainly have to pick up the book now…

  • Jim Carruthers

    I think “The Crow Road” is my favourite Iain Banks mainstream novel and some of his best writing. My personal favourite is this paragraph:

    “Beside the thick-necked bulk of the Urvill of Urville (soberly resplendent in what I assumed was the family’s mourning tartan – blackish purple, blackish green and fairly dark black) sat neither of his two daughters, Diana and Helen – those long-legged visions of money-creamed, honey-skinned, globetrotting loveliness – but instead his niece, the stunning, the fabulous, the golden-haired, vellus-faced, diamond-eyed Verity, upwardly nublile scionette of the house of Urville, the jewel beside the jowls: the girl who, for me, had put the lectual in intellectual, and phany in epiphany and ibid in libidinous!”

    That, and name-checking The Pixies. “Crow Road” was also made into a teevee mini-series in the UK.

    Banks also wrote perhaps the best and most authentic novel about a rock band, “Espedair Street”.

  • Chad Orzel

    I haven’t read all of his mainstream stuff (Walking on Glass and Espedair Street are on the to-be-read shelf), but I’ve liked The Crow Road the best of the ones I have read. Complicity cheats a little, and The Wasp Factory is just a little too gross, and not entirely successful at doing what it does (Bradley Denton’s Blackburn does something similar, and does it better).

    The best thing of his that I’ve read is either Use of Weapons or Look to Windward, but it’s hard to say which.

  • rob

    A very comprehensive review