Thursday, 30 September 1999

Iain Banks: A Song of Stone (1997)

Edition: Abacus, 1998
Review number: 342

A Song of Stone is about the relationships between people and places. It starts with the nobleman Abel fleeing with his mistress and some of the servants from the castle which has been his home all his life, fearing its destruction at the hands of one of the bands of soldiers pillaging the country as a result of the anarchy following civil war. Intercepted in their flight by just such a band, they return to the castle, which the lieutenant and her followers want to make their stronghold.

The heart of the novel is the contrast between the attitudes of Abel and the lieutenant's group to the castle and its rich artistic treasures. Though Abel has been indifferent to them all his life, to see their slow but sure misuse and destruction affects him deeply. The lieutenant does little to stop her men broaching the wine cellars and rampaging through the castle, despite apparently wanting to preserve its art. Another part of Abel, though, takes a perverse pleasure in the senseless destruction.

The novel is addressed by Abel, as narrator, to his lover - a strange, passive and silent woman who was brought up with him almost as a sister. The consistent use of the second person in a narrative is unusual and unsettling to read, especially because it seems to cast the reader into the role of someone who is so passive. Clearly a deliberate effect, it is extremely successful, if unnerving.

Something else which is unsettling is the setting. The war is in an anonymous country, yet it could be close to home. (The neo-Gothic castle depicted in the cover illustration enhances this feeling, so it could easily be a Scottish stately home, built for shooting parties by a nineteenth century grandee.) The technology is twentieth century, without a doubt so the reader ends up thinking what they would do if a vicious civil war broke out now?

Initially, A Song of Stone seems to have much less depth than most of Banks' novels, though he does make some telling points. (The way Abel and his like treated people as possessions is indicated, for example, by the way that he does not even know the name of his most faithful old servant when this man dies and the lieutenant suggests putting up a gravestone.) Its main flaw is shared with the other Banks novels I like least, Canal Dreams and Complicity: an uninvolving central character.

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