Jun 22 2009 10:22am

A funny book with a lot of death in it: Iain Banks’s The Crow Road

I bought this particular copy of The Crow Road in Hay-on-Wye. Abacus had done nifty patching b-format paperbacks of all Banks’s novels, all with metaphorical covers, the mainstream books in black and white and the SF coloured. (I’m sure they were thinking something when they made that decision, but it’s too obvious to be interesting.) Emmet had all the other ones in matching editions, but had lost his Crow Road, and meanwhile they’d come out with new ugly covers. So I was in Hay-on-Wye, town of books, and I was writing Tooth and Claw and reading Trollope. In one of the second hand bookshops there I bought fifteen Trollope novels and The Crow Road. The shop assistant looked at me oddly. “That’s a bit different!” she said.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose it is a bit different in that it’s set in 1990 rather than 1880, but they’re all books with a strong sense of place and time and family, where the boy gets the girl in the end and the family secrets are unravelled. I’ll grant you the Banks has a bit more sex.”

This somehow didn’t stop her looking at me oddly I think there may be a lot of people out there whose reading tastes are incredibly narrow.

My main question on re-reading The Crow Road now is to ask why people don’t write SF like this. SF stories that are about people but informed with the history that is going on around them. More specifically, why is it that Iain Banks writes these mainstream books with great characters and voice and a strong sense of place and then writes SF with nifty backgrounds and ideas but almost lacking in characters? The only one of his SF novels that has characters I remember is Use of Weapons. There are lots of writers who write SF and mainstream, but Banks is the only one whose mainstream I like better. Mystifying.

The Crow Road famously begins:

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

“The crow road” means death, and “he’s away the crow road” means that someone has died. The book begins with a funeral, and there are several more, along with a sprinkling of weddings and christenings, before the end. It’s also the title of a work of fiction Rory’s working on at the time of his death. Rory is Prentice’s other uncle, and Prentice is the first person narrator of a large proportion of the novel. This is a family saga, and if you can’t cope with a couple of generations of McHoans and Urvills and Watts, you won’t like it. I’d also advise against it if you loathe Scotland, as all the characters are Scottish and the whole novel takes place in Scotland. Oh, and they drink like they have no care for their livers. But if you don’t mind these little things, it’s a very good read.

The present tense of the story is set very precisely in 1989 and ’90—coincidentally, the exact same time as Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which I read last week. The First Gulf War is mentioned in both books. One of the characters in The Crow Road goes to Canada, but when I wonder if she’ll encounter the characters from The Robber Bride, my brain explodes. Toronto and Gallanach—or maybe just Atwood and Banks—are clearly on different planets. And yet there are similarities. Both books have a present and long flashbacks into the past—The Crow Road goes back to Prentice’s father’s childhood. Still, different planets. Different assumptions about how human beings are.

So, why do you want to read The Crow Road? It’s absorbing. It’s very funny, with humour arising from situation and characters. (There’s an atheist struck by lightning climbing a church.) There’s a family like my family, which isn’t to say realistic. There are the sort of situations you have in real life but so rarely in fiction, like the bit where the two young men are digging their father’s grave while the gravedigger sleeps, and they wake him up by laughing, and he’s appalled. There’s a mysterious disappearance that might be murder. There’s True Love, false love, skullduggery, death, birth, sex, cars, and Scotland.

The land around Gallanach is thick with ancient monuments; burial sites, henges, and strangeky carved rocks. You can hardly put a foot down without stepping on somethin that had religious significance to somebody sometime. Verity had heard of all this ancient stoneware but she’d never really seen it properly, her visits to Gallanach in the past had been busyt with other things, and about the only thing she had seen was Dunadd, because it was an eays walk from the castle. And of course, because we’d lived hereall our lives, none of the rest of us had bothered to visit half the places either.

It isn’t in any way a genre novel, but it’s great fun and so very good.

Rafael Penaloza
1. rpenalozan
After being deeply disappointed by Iain Banks with the first (and only so far) book I have read written by him, you just gave me a reason to give him a new opportunity.
Del C
2. del
The famous first line is used by Omid Djalili in this recent TV advert for the National Year of Reading.
3. NickPheas
So will you be covering the Trollope next? I've just finished Phineas Finn. Disappointed to be honest - not a patch on Can You Forgive Her.
Sandi Kallas
4. Sandikal
I'm not sure if Rpenalozan (#1) read the same book I did, but I was also very disappointed in the only Iain Banks novel I ever read. I've heard such great things about him, but I'm really afraid to try him again.

Just last week, I learned that he also writes mainstream fiction and I have to say that his mainstream sounds much more intriguing than his science fiction. Maybe I'll give him a second shot--just not with SF.
Jordan Bell
5. jordanroberts
In my experience of recommending Iain Banks' books to people (both his SF as Iain M Banks and his straight fic as Iain Banks) the first book that you read can colour your perception markedly. For what it's worth, here are my recommendations.

Good first books to try (straight fic)
The Business
Dead Air
The Bridge

Bad first books to try (straight fic)
Complicity (where I started and immediately stopped for over 10 years before realising what I'd shut myself off from)
The Wasp Factory (not that it's a bad book, it's just a some regards - better to read it once you already like him)
A Song of Stone

Good first books to try (SF)
Against a Dark Background
The Player of Games
Use of Weapons
The Algebraist

Bad first books to try (SF)
Excession (you'll appreciate it much better with the grounding of the other books which relate to this universe)
Feersum Endjinn
6. mcrbryant
I love Iain Banks and have read all of his novels apart from the latest one. The books do require you to think, so if you are after light, fluffy reads, with your brain totally unplugged, you need to look elsewhere. That said, I would in no way describe his books as 'Heavy'.

I enjoyed Dead Air, but it's a bit flat compared to his usual offerings. The opening scene badly needs to be incorporated into a film.

I can recommend Whit if you like The Crow Road.

His Science Fiction (written as Iain M. Banks) is simply genius: twisted, dark and funny - I don't think there is any current writer who can touch him. For Sci-fi I recommend 'The Player of Games', 'Feersum Endjinn' is very funny if you can cope with the phoenetic spelling in some chapters - it actually made me laugh out loud a few times. The Algebraist is also very good and amusing.

I just read post 5 by jordanroberts - that's pretty accurate. If I was going to recommend one book to start with from the Sci-fi side it would be 'Player of Games' - its what got me hooked on his writing.
Matthew Brown
7. morven
I actually started my Banks reading with The Wasp Factory, good place to start or not; it's, well, colorful.

You're right that all too often his science-fiction characters aren't all that memorable. Banks' love there is his settings and scenery and plot, I think.

As well as 'Use of Weapons' and 'The Player of Games', I also think that 'Against a Dark Background' is one where he does character well. The problem there is that Sharrow is not, on the surface, a very likeable person. It's her armor, what she hides behind; cold, shallow arrogance. And almost everyone dies, too; it's one of Banks' body-count novels. I'd recommend it highly.
Soon Lee
8. SoonLee
Thank you Jo, for writing these reviews. "The Crow Road" is yet another beloved book for me. Reading your write-up makes me want to re-read it.

Like other commenters, I agree that some books are better introductions to Iain (M.) Banks than others. If you've never read his non-SF, "The Crow Road" is a great way to start.

It has a killer opening. Also, best use of Morse code evah!
9. YossiT
The Crow Road was also adapted to a TV miniseries I really enjoyed at the time.
David Dyer-Bennet
10. dd-b
I've suspected for a while that I might like his mainstream books better. So far I've only read one of his books, SF, Use of Weapons, which I hated with a white-hot passion. But maybe some day I'll calm down enough to try one of the mainstream; several reports have made them sound interesting.
11. John M. Kelly
I'd agree that Use of Weapons is annoyingly cute. Banks is a brilliant and extremely variable writer who seems to enjoy pushing the envelope, and not all of his experiments succeed. Most readers will enjoy Whit and The Crow Road, not so many Song of Stone or Consider Phlebas, in both of which Banks seems to be indulging a taste for senseless violence.
Readers of The Crow Road might ask why Banks had to scramble the narrative's chronology so thoroughly--we're dropped into different time frames seemingly at random--or they might consider that part of the fun. Of all his books, it's my favorite.
Whit is probably the best place to start, for most readers. Its story unfolds in a fairly orderly way, and its protagonist is such a charming character I grew morose and read slowly toward the end; I didn't want to part with her.
12. PaddyS
I started my reading of Iain Banks with Crow road and have read many of the others... I would rate Crow Road as probably the most approachable of the ones I have read with complicity a good second and Whit probably third.

I was amazed by 'A song of stone' which is possibly the most depressing book I have ever read... A real achievement if that was the aim. Having seen today's news about Iain's health I hope that more people remember him for being a truely different yet highly accomplished british author...

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