I’ve read a few by Iain Banks, there was a book club at my sixth form college that I liked the look of at 17 but the first book up for discussion was The Wasp Factory and I nearly passed out from the horror (it’s well written but traumatic). The Crow Road is generally known as one of Banks’ more reader-friendly novels, at least on the literary side – he’s also a science fiction writer but when he does that it’s under the name of Iain M. Banks and I’ve never tried any of that. What I like most about Banks’ writing is the way he allows his characters to be inarticulate – they’re very believable. In The Steep Approach to Garbadale, the main character refers to his late mother’s suicide when he was a child as ‘that thing with my Mum’ – not everybody can describe their formative experiences in quotable sound bites, sometimes you just do not want to talk about it.
The Crow Road is so called because it’s all about death. And cars. But mostly death. The main character Prentice’s grandmother refers to anybody who has died as being ‘away the crow road’ and another key character lives on a road of the same name – this is something of a detective story as Prentice tries to figure out why his family is having such a rough run of luck. This book also has one of the finest opening lines ever – “It all began the day my grandmother exploded”, Prentice is at his grandmother’s cremation only they forgot to take out the pacemaker, leading to the family doctor who has realised the mistake to come screeching along in his car, having a heart attack himself in the process.
The McHoan family are a jumbled lot – Prentice has rejected atheism and has been rejected by his father Kenneth in the process, his uncle Hamish has set up his own religion, aunt Fiona has been dead for years and nobody has got a clue where Uncle Rory’s got to. Uncle Rory’s disappearance is the central mystery of the novel, Kenneth is sure he is still alive even though nobody’s heard a thing from him in a decade. Prentice hears from his old school friend Ashley Watt who heard from a man in a jacuzzi in Berlin (I know, it’s amazing) that someone in West Gallinach (their home town) is having the wool pulled over their eyes and Prentice starts to think that this refers to Kenneth about Rory and decides to investigate.
Prentice is a complete idiot but in an utterly believable way. He is a student, has no money and is utterly impractical but is also good-hearted and is fighting for his family who have no idea what’s really going on. This book is hilarious in so many places in a very black way, at one of the funerals, Prentice remarks to his stand-up comedian brother Lewis that it might be cheaper for the family to invest in a hearse. Yet, Prentice is so believable – when the time comes to confront the person who may or may not be responsible for several of the trips to the crow road, Prentice takes a deep breath and manages to squeak out something along the lines of “Is there anything you’d like to tell me about all this?”, the person turns and glares and Prentice gets scared and runs away. Hero, absolute hero. Still, eventually he gets it done.
The Crow Road is no slasher book, it’s not riddled with murders, it’s more of a Wuthering Heights for Scotland – a bunch of people from a close-knit community going a bit weird. The novel covers Prentice’s father’s generation in their early adulthood in between Prentice’s disorganised and distinctly amateurish detectiving (he does try bless him, even if he does continually leave stuff on trains) and mixed along with this are Prentice’s reminiscences of his own childhood, meaning that the reader has a better idea of what’s going on with the case than Prentice does. Deaths by foul play are not the only ways people head for the crow road, Prentice’s friend Darren was in a road accident and died after his head hit a bin at speed (this was the tragedy that led to him finding God, to his father’s disgust) and spoilers Prentice’s atheist father Kenneth dies while climbing a church steeple in a thunderstorm while loudly denouncing God. Banks does like to muse on the nature of humanity and The Crow Road is no exception. What do we want from death? What do we expect when other people we love die? It is something that comes to us all but that doesn’t make people any more eager to confront it. It’s like we each believe that we can be the exception. It’s no wonder that it messes with Prentice’s head – anybody who has really gone through grief knows what that’s about.
This is one of my favourite books oddly enough … it’s not the death thing because I’m not one for morbidly over-analysing the human condition, but I think it’s partly the very believable family dynamic – chaotic, dysfunction and simmering resentment which has masked the true scandal. I really liked that Prentice never exposed the whole mess to the rest of his family, knowing that it was easier to deal with the issue quietly – isn’t that the way most families deal with conflict? It may not be healthy, it may not be ethical but it is believable. I remember reading somewhere that all families have at least three really great stories in them and thinking that there was truth in that and this is a definite example. Well written, very funny and with a lot of dark truths about the lies that are told and the secrets that are kept amongst those who we have known all our lives.
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Published by Abacus Pages: 501
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