Tuesday, 11 November 2003

Iain Banks: Canal Dreams (1989)

Edition: Abacus, 1990
Review number: 1195

When I first read Canal Dreams, I found it disappointing; now, a couple of re-readings later, it has grown on me. It marks some changes in Banks' writing, not least in the setting - in place of the imanginary universe of the Culture, or the Scottish backgrounds of his earlier novels, Canal Dreams is set on a ship stranded in the Panama Canal by a revolution - and the protagonist - his first undoubtedly female central character is about as far removed from the author's experience as it is possible to be, being a Japanese cello player. Both these changes are part of a move away from experimentation towards more mainstream novels with cosmopolitan settings, which continues in several later novels, including The Business.

The plot is fairly simple; in the first half, when the ship is stranded but unharmed, it is about what could be done to pass the time in such a place as Cancun Lake - scuba diving, cello playing, and an affair with one of the ship's officers. The tone changes in the much darker second half, when the ship is taken over by the rebels and Canal Dreams becomes a thriller. The quietness of the early pages brings more emotional commitment from the reader to the later drama, making the violence more disturbing than it would be in a straightforward member of the thriller genre.

The make or break issue for this particular novel is how convincing Banks is able to make a central character as unlike himself as Hisako. He is not entirely successful, but at least manages to give the impression that his ideas about Japanese culture are not entirely culled from The Mikado. The big problem Banks faced is the contrast between her passivity in the first part and activity in the second, and he worked hard to motivate this at the expense, I felt, of other aspects of Hisako's character. Of course, with the title of the novel, it is entirely possible that the second half is a dream, a piece of wish fulfilment; Banks leaves this open.

Despite the eventual high levels of violence, Canal Dreams retains throughout the dreamy atmosphere generated by the first part - something which is clearly part of the reason for use of the word "Dreams" in the title. The novel doesn't make its points of interest as obvious as the expermental narrative forms Banks played with before it, and Hisako is not completely convincing as a character, but there is much to enjoy.

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