Tuesday, 6 January 2004

Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)

Edition: Abacus, 1993
Review number: 1208

The Crow Road must be Iain Banks' best known novel, if only because it is the only one to have been turned into a TV series (so far). (The novel is one of my favourites, but I found the adaptation unwatchable.) It is set in Scotland, in a small town north of Glasgow, somewhere I suspect is not too far from the location of The Wasp Factory. The narrator of most of the novel is a teenager from a rather unusual family (not just in their personalities, though having an uncle with his own personal religion is a bit on the strange side; the McHoans tend to die in odd ways). The Crow Road is basically Iain Banks' take on the coming of age novel; not the first time he has written one (The Wasp Factory is an extremely grotesque story of this type), but the novel of his which best fits into this category.

As such, The Crow Road (a Scots expression for death) centres around the character of Prentice McHoan. He is obviously quite bright, but his major character traits are that he is unobservant and stubborn, which makes him disastrous at relationships. The best example of this (apart from the ending) is how he reacts when he discovers that his brother is the new boyfriend of the girl he has worshipped silently from afar for years.

A large part of Prentice's growing up is his coming to an understanding of his parents generation; he becomes obsessed with some papers left behind by his uncle Rory, who vanished mysteriously several years earlier. This becomes particularly important to Prentice after his father's death (a militant atheist, he is struck by lightning climbing a church tower lightning rod, defying God to prove his existence).

Why is The Crow Road one of my favourite novels? For one thing, it is Banks' funniest. Most of his novels have a humorous side, mainly of a rather dark and macabre nature. Here there is more mainstream humour, though the grotesquerie is still present if in more muted form (the death of Prentice's father being one example, and the explosion of his grandmother at the start of the novel another).

At the same time, there is a mystery (what did happen to uncle Rory?), a believable coming of age story, a first person narrative which exposes the character of the narrator, and a celebration of Scotland. The Crow Road is a truly wonderful and life enriching novel.

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