For the past 24 years, Iain Banks has steadily developed a reputation as one of the most consistently dependable British writers in contemporary fiction. Some of this has to do with the somewhat idiosyncratic duality of his career — publishing 12 works of mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, and a nearly equal number of science fiction works as Iain M. Banks. Genre-crossing isn’t exactly unheard of these days, but Banks has walked confidently in both worlds throughout his career and has captivated a growing fan base in both audience camps around the world.
But in spite of his incredible publishing schedule and a reputation built on both critical acclaim and word-of-mouth recommendation, Banks’s career has only more recently managed to cross the Atlantic to US audiences, and many of his early works simply never had distribution in the States. Therefore publisher McAdam/Cage’s bringing 1992’s The Crow Road — one of Banks’s most popular mainstream novels in the UK, even adapted to a BBC miniseries in 1996 — is no mere reprinting. It brings to fledgling audiences one of the books that helped cement Banks’s appeal in the UK.
The Crow Road is the story of one Prentice McHoan, a young Scottish university student whose life is primarily complicated by coming from a complicated and slightly eccentric family. We’re introduced to Prentice at the funeral for his grandmother, a loving but shrewdly direct woman in old age who met her end falling through the glass roof of her own conservatory while trying to clean the gutters. Prentice’s father is a former teacher turned children’s book author and a steadfastly atheistic socialist. His aunt was married to a landed aristocrat, but died in a tragic auto accident, his father’s eldest brother is an executive manager at the local glass factory and lives by a self-devised, reinterpreted-Anglican religion with its own cosmology, and his father’s younger brother mysteriously disappeared without a trace when Prentice was a young boy. Topped off with an elder brother who has a modestly successful career as a stand-up comic that Prentice is simultaneously jealous of and embarrassed by, and an extended family with their own quirks, he feels somewhat lost in a tangled family history.
Right away, Banks encourages us to see this as dark comedy with a human touch. The novel opens with the great first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The aforementioned funeral affords us our first look at Prentice’s family, as well as small details like dismay over mismatched socks giving us a sense of Prentice’s slight awkwardness, and continues into a flashback of Prentice remembering his grandmother gazing fondly at an old garaged car and telling him it was the last place she’s had sex. Despite the surprise, it’s actually a rather clear, tender moment where the generations meet honestly. A few pages later, his grandmother’s corpse explodes in the crematorium. The family doctor had forgotten to warn the undertakers about her pacemaker.
With a set-up like that to end the first chapter, as well as the cast of characters described above, you could be reasonably forgiven for assuming that The Crow Road is going to be a familiarly British farce, full of bemusement and shenanigans. And remarkable things do happen to the McHoans, and there is humor and wit, plenty of it dry, and there are errors, but this is no mere comedy. Despite all the distinctive elements of being from a wealthy and dynamic family in a small town, and despite the twists and turns of the extended circle of family and friends that surrounds Prentice, the fact is that this a coming of age story that succeeds through its strong dose of normalcy.
Prentice has the angst and aimlessness of youth that we’ve come to consider typical, but Banks paints it all with a delicate brush. Prentice is fully self-aware as a character, arguing with his own internal monologue and berating himself when he knows he’s being sulky or a twit. When he makes questionable choices, he questions them directly, often with wit and resignation, but never with a single-minded ignorance. Banks pours a good deal of thought and feeling into the too-familiar fumbling into adulthood, and it doesn’t take long at all to slip into Prentice’s life and be reminded of your own.
What’s more, Banks takes the reader outside of Prentice’s interior world and into the lives of The Crow Road‘s other primary characters in the McHoan family. Rather than merely having Prentice recounting the strange, flame-licked encounter that brought his parents together, Banks cuts back to dad Kenneth’s own perspective on the scene, allowing us to inhabit not only the moment itself, but also Kenneth’s mindset, giving an inside look into the character of the man that Prentice spends so much of the book estranged from. The book is filled with jumps like this, Banks letting non-linear threads weave in and out of the story in a way that initially seems random, but actually works to provide the reader with a rich context for all of the primary plot events. Again, flashbacks aren’t a novel approach in stories like this, but Banks handles them artfully, with just the right touch to increase the scope and scale of the story. Even Prentice’s history is told in non-linear fashion, with memories cropping up the way they do in everyday life: dredged up by the other events and cascading to form a whole.
The result is a book that feels more or less natural, nearly ordinary, in spite of the unique circumstances of the individual characters. True, not many of us have a rich Uncle Fergus who lives in a castle with a specially constructed astronomical observatory, but the familial tension of politics between rich uncle and socialist father is humanizing, as well as the adolescent gatherings in said observatory to simply hang out with friends over beers and joints. Perhaps because the story is filtered through Prentice, who despite being well connected, is actually living in a crummy flat and living off generic pre-packaged food, it feels like an everyman tale, but Banks’s ability to humanize the experience draws the reader in and never lets it feel like aristocratic soap opera.
Discussing specific plot points is almost too much a giveaway, but as with all coming-of-age stories, this is a book about searching for identity. The book opens with Prentice in a minor cold war with his father over religion, specifically Prentice’s desire to hope for something bigger in the universe to give life meaning butting against his father’s staunch atheism. We also learn that despite being intelligent and clever, Prentice is disengaged from his studies, and merely trudging through day to day life. His heart is committed to a lingering adolescent crush on non-blood related cousin Verity, a member of the rich branch, yet he blunders through a few uncomfortable (and nearly oedipal) sexual encounters nonetheless. And amidst all of this uncertainty, Prentice deals with his family’s history as it is constantly thrust on him (as happens to each of us). The one thing that he latches onto in the sea of personalities is the disappearance of his father’s brother, Rory, and in a slow, almost lazy manner, begins to look deeper into the mystery, eventually realizing it may be a murder mystery.
For this is also a novel about death and its lingering effects on the living. The Crow Road takes its name from a saying that Prentice remebers as a stand-by of his grandmother’s: “He’s away the Crow Road.” The Crow Road here is death, of course, and that saying resonates throughout these pages as a melancholy approach to the tenuousness of life. The McHoans do have a history of early and/or unexpected deaths in the family, after all. Amid other details, that phrase haunts every mention of the appearance of birds, and they are many. And as the daily events of Prentice’s life begin to overlap the hidden murder of the past, The Crow Road grows profound in its handling of how family deaths lurk with us as we move on, whether we maintain stoicism or not.
When it comes to American readers approaching this novel for the first time, one of the other beautifully rendered aspects of The Crow Road is setting. It doesn’t take a committed Anglophile to have some idea of the Scottish countryside, and Banks allows those images to breathe, adding detailed colors, flowers, smells, and other textures without ever over-painting the scene. The book is also littered with Scot-specific viewpoints on both the land and the politics of the UK, particularly the simmering hostility towards the English to the south.
For new readers in 2008, it’s also inescapable that this book is set in what is now clearly the past. In 1992, this book was contemporary, and Banks weaves lots of cultural details into the work, from mentions of the Cocteau Twins, anti-Poll Tax t-shirts, and the end of Thatcherism, to the final section of the book’s looming sense of dread over the dawning of the first Gulf War. It’s difficult to read these specifics without the automatic reading filter of thinking, “Oh, this writer is writing about past events from a bygone decade,” but this was all fresh news when this book first hit the shelves. Now, simply because of the distance of time, a new and unintentional veneer of nostalgia coats the book, but Banks places this story in a clear and contextual setting in time, and that those details still resonate so well is a testament to their longevity in his writing.
The Crow Road makes an excellent introduction to Banks for new readers, and for readers who have already signed on it fills in an American release of a much-loved British classic by the author. Its length seems to fly by, and an extraordinary tale is rendered so carefully that it feels universal. At book’s end, when the truth has won out, and Prentice has discovered what it actually means to be in love, it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood ending. Life isn’t like that, and Prentice’s maturity is certain to be just as complicated. But it does feel like a victory.