Review: Stonemouth, Iain Banks

 I’ve mentioned before about how The Crow Road is one of my favourite ever books.  Banks as a writer is one of the most varied I have ever come across – to make things confusing he also writes science fiction under the name Iain M Banks.  The next thing of his that I ever read was The Wasp Factory which made me want to cry and haunted my dreams – reviews described it as a work of ‘unparalleled depravity’.  It was different, I’ll give it that.  I remember deciding to try The Steep Approach to Garbadale after reading that it was Banks’ most likeable book since The Crow Road but even that was one that I struggled to warm to. 

Still, I always keep an eye out for Banks in bookshops because of how much I loved The Crow Road but I wouldn’t rush out for the hardback.  All the same, I actually liked Stonemouth – I read one review that said that this new book was Iain-Banks-by-numbers but I disagree.  Certainly, there are parallels to The Crow Road and The Steep Approach because all three deal with someone returning to the place of their birth to confront family mysteries but there are enough differences to keep things fresh.  Bildungsroman (coming of age stories) have been around for centuries – if Iain Banks is good at writing them, then I don’t really understand why people are having a go.

The first line is one bold word: Clarity.  This is what the main character Stewart is looking for, your class mid-twenties man who is feeling a bit directionless … it’s a bit scary that I’m now at that age myself.  I no longer look at these moments of doubt as something that might happen to me in my future, it’s something that’s going on in my peer group.  The novel begins with Stewart standing on the suspension bridge just outside of Stonemouth – nothing says Scotland quite like a good suspension bridge.  The Forth Rail Bridge is a personal favourite of mine, the gateway to getting back to university.  I have a postcard painting of it up in my room.

Anyway, Stewart is returning home for a funeral – but it is under very different circumstances to The Crow Road.  His presence is required at the burial of Old Joe Murston, the aged patriarch of the Murston clan, one of the two crime families who quietly run Stonemouth and due to unfortunate events that occurred five years previously, Stewart needs to ask this same family’s permission to enter the town.  It can seem a little bit cowboy western at times but Banks does write it very convincingly.  After a friendly chat with the Murstons’ heavy who pleasantly tells Stewart that he is fine, provided that it is just for the weekend, ken?  Stewart stammers that he was thinking of staying til the following Tuesday and from there on you just know things aren’t going to run smoothly.

The way that Stewart handled entering the town At His Own Risk was handled in a classic Bankian anti-hero fashion; when he goes to have a sit-down with Mr Murston himself, he live-tweets his location which to be fair, I probably would do too, just so people are clear as to his whereabouts.  It’s funny how hard it is to use technology in novels, in keeping people constantly connected, they can block those helpful misunderstandings that boost plot developments.  I noticed that once things started to get really tense, Stewart’s up-to-date iPhone was conveniently ‘lost’ (chucked off the bridge) and he had to scale down to a ‘rubbish phone’ that he could pick up from the high street. Much easier to lose track of.

Stewart himself was a character I had mixed feelings over.  The events that drove him out of town are narrated through flashback.  From early adolescence, he was smitten with Ellie Murston, eldest daughter of the drug-dealer family who are more Soprano than Corleone.  It’s odd because artist Stewart has ended up as making lighting installations, quite literally shining light on things – as metaphors go it was slightly heavy-handed.  Rather predictably, he is not sure that he wants to do what he has been doing and things get a little bit Garden State when he returns home and meets up with his old school friends.  The flashbacking has always been a strong suit of Banks’, the ghastly childhood accident that led to the death of Wee Malky is told in excruciating detail and it is very believable that this whole group has known each other since childhood.  It’s funny how when dealing with people from school, even years later it is still relevant to note where they were in relation to you (eg. the year above, two years below).  When you go home, you are instantly back to whoever you were when they saw you last.  In Stewart’s case, he was a fugitive.

For circumstances surrounding the end of his relationship with Ellie, Stewart left Stonemouth quite literally running for his life.  In one of those oh-so-friendly-and-not-at-all-edgy conversations, it is mentioned to Mr Murston that he and his sons had run Stewart out of town, Mr Murston laughingly points out that wasn’t their actual intention at the time.  Anyway, whatever they were planning to do to him, Ellie got him to the railway line and Stewart was able to escape in a pipe.  Five years on, the Murstons are still not very happy with Stew, they are even kind enough to double check how long he has booked his hire car to make sure that he isn’t staying any longer than the agreed time period.

It’s funny, The Crow Road reminded me a wee bit of Wuthering Heights with the slightly baroque weavings of the plot, this one was more like Great Expectations; Stewart and Ellie meeting again after five years put me in mind of Pip and Estella.  The funny thing was that I read another review that said the same thing.  After everything that had gone on and particularly Stewart’s Terrible Awful Misdeed, it takes a rare author to make you root for those two crazy kids to sort things out.  And yet I did – the ending made me very happy.  But then, I am a notorious softie.

So, yes I definitely enjoyed this one.  I’ll admit that the Banks rants can sometimes grate, in The Crow Road it was religion (which comes up again here), in The Steep Approach it was the Iraq war, this time though it wasn’t so bad, it’s the drug culture.  Stonemouth is a town where everything seems pleasant, yet things are run by two cooperating-but-still-competing crime families.  As Stewart puts it, these people ‘get parking tickets and speeding fines like the rest of us and Callum Murston did not get off the assault charge when he was twenty’ but the bigger-scale crimes, like the serious question marks over some of the people who have ‘thrown themselves’ from the bridge go unquestioned.  The townspeople and indeed the police may think that this is all a small price to pay for a peaceful town, but Stewart is not so sure and by the end, neither is the reader.  In that way, I call this book a success.

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Stonemouth by Iain Banks
Published by Hachette UK on April 5th 2012
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 400
ISBN: 9780748116539

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