Tuesday, 18 May 2004

Iain Banks: Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003)

Edition: Century, 2003
Review number: 1237

Iain Banks' first book length non-fiction writing is on a subject which has little interest to me, and is certainly a book I would not have picked up had it not been for the author's name. The subject is whisky, and I have been a teetotaller for over fifteen years. So a book about scotch is not really one calculated to appeal to me, and indeed I did find the parts of Raw Spirit which are in fact about the drink rather dull (there is clearly a limit to the number of ways that even such an inventive writer as Iain Banks can find to describe the tastes of the different malts - "peaty" is a word rather lacking in synonyms). The book really only takes whisky as one theme among several, as it describes a series of journeys motivated by the idea of visiting every Scottish distillery; it is basically a travel book. So quite a large proportion of Raw Spirit - more than half - is about other things: Scottish scenery, Scottish roads, Iain Banks and his friends, his cars, and how he feels about the Iraq war. This is all much more interesting, if repetitive in places.

So what's in Raw Spirit for the reader? That depends very much on what the reader wants to get from it even more than is the case for most books. A whisky connoisseur would probably have more detailed and systematic information about single malts available from reference books they already own, even though here they have the information recorded in a more individual manner. As a travel book, it could do with illustration - Banks often mentions photos being taken, but only two are used, and a map showing the distilleries and itinerary would make the logic of the journeys easier to see. The trips themselves lack the epic of unusual quality one expects from a travel book. The main interest in the travel sections comes from the various friends and relatives who accompany Banks on his trips, modern car journeys not that interesting to read about. (Scotland is not to me a particularly unfamiliar country; to others, this may be more interesting.) This leads to what is probably what most readers will get from Raw Spirit - autobiographical anecdotes from a favourite writer. In the end, this is a book for fans of Banks' fiction, for those who want to know more about the man behind the novels. Like many writers, the creator is less interesting than his creations. (This is exemplified when Banks compares his own happy childhood with the abuse and neglect many readers expect to have been necessary to produce The Wasp Factory, as though, as Banks points out, people can only write from their personal experience.) This really is a book strictly for the fans.

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