Sunday, 29 April 2012


Despite being a life-long fan of science fiction (albeit less so in the last few years), I've never been able to get away with the works of Iain M. Banks. Contemporary novelist Iain Banks, however, is another matter. That Banks has written some of my favourite mainstream novels of the last 25 years -Espedair Street, The Crow Road, and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. He's written several others which I've enjoyed but these are my favourites. These are his specifically Scottish novels and share a similar approach which I like a great deal and Stonemouth is his latest in this vein. 

They tend to deal with the theme of estrangement and reconciliation. Each focuses on an individual and is written in the first person and involve the narrator returning to his roots and how he reacts to what he finds there. The full picture is only gradually revealed through present encounters and through flashbacks. Stonemouth fits this pattern to a T.

Stewart, a young man in his mid-twenties, returns to Stonemouth, a small coastal town run moderately benignly by two gangs, for the funeral of one of the gang-lords. Five years earlier he committed an indiscretion which resulted in him fleeing for his life. He returns with the promise of safe conduct so long as he leaves immediately after the funeral.

Banks is incapable of writing a dull sentence and the opening couple of pages evocatively describe being alone in the middle of a suspension bridge shrouded in mist above an estuary where the narrator shortly has an encounter with a local hard man. And after that you just don't want to stop reading as Banks gradually unfolds the story and reveals the mysteries surrounding Stewart and his past.

This is the weakest of the Scottish quartet -certainly it lacks the density of The Crow Road- but that doesn't mean it's a poor book by any means; it just isn't Banks at his very best. The protagonist's sin, when revealed, proves to be little more than a MacGuffin, an is-that-all? moment. 

Nevertheless, I read it in about a day and enjoyed it a lot. It certainly won't disappoint fans of Banks' writing. Well, maybe just a little.

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