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Today’s book review of a single short story is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey. If you’d like your book reviewed or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
Iain Banks’ The Crow Road
Synopsis: From its bravura opening onwards, THE CROW ROAD is justly regarded as an outstanding contemporary novel. ‘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.’ Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances…
When writing in first person point of view, it’s harder to have lots of action and to avoid too much description. The first couple of chapters were full of reminiscing and while it was charming, I started losing interest but persevered. It’s Iain’s sixth book (the first was The Wasp Factory) so it’s not a novice’s mistake of easing us in with lots of backstory before the plot starts, usually in chapter three… chapter four in this case (where Prentice finds his uncle’s book’s notes, The Crow Road) but then it plodded on again and it’s only mentioned briefly on an doff until chapter fifteen when – I felt – the story really got going. As there were only eighteen chapters in the book, this was too late and the final four chapters are by far the best.
For me there was far too much detail; I didn’t need to know what Prentice’s love interest’s parents did with the car Verity had been born in, and how the world started (also described in Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet).
Regular readers of my reviews will know I’m a stickler for character names and Prentice’s grandmother’s solicitor, Lawrence L Block, shares his name with an American author, perhaps an homage by Mr Banks. The other names are generally very distinctive and I especially like Mr Gibbons extending those he meets.
The novel’s packed with humour with phrases like ‘your father raises you to be an atheist and you go and find religion’, ‘Lloyd Cole city because she had perfect skin’, and the ‘tassel’ scene between brothers Rory and Ken, and when Prentice first has sex were brilliant.
Sadly it’s packed more with unnecessary description, family goings on (or rather not going) and my eyes glazed over so often I’ve given SafeStyle or Everest a run for their cliched money.
Speaking of cliches, despite Mr Banks being a clearly very skilled writer, there are few cliches including ‘inky black’, ‘a look like thunder’, ‘see the wood for the trees’ and ‘white as a sheet’. Adverbs were also present including ‘said sniffily’ (more than one of those as well as a ‘turned sniffily’), ‘said angrily’, ‘ploughed crunchingly’, ‘conspiratorially’, ‘strode purposefully’, and ‘laughed throatily’ where the __ly adverbs aren’t needed because of what the characters said. Surpluses include ‘shrugged his shoulders’ (how else do we shrug?).
Unless I missed something, Prentice bought a VW Beetle but then not long later talked about going up north in ‘the 2CV’. Next thing we know, he’s driving a VW Golf, although he did inherit some money in between. I confess that I zoned in and out – in true Walter Mitty fashion – at the slower points of the story.
This novel is very Adrian Mole and will appeals to Sue Townsend fans as it will those of Roddy Doyle who also writes about – Irish in Roddy’s case – his characters’ culture and The Crow Road did remind me of Roddy’s The Deportees which I reviewed back in October 2014. Readers in Irvine Welsh would also likely enjoy the book given the drug taking and swearing in it, albeit in far smaller proportions than Mr Welsh’s gritty tomes.
I only gave ‘The Deportees’ 3 out of 5 and this book would have earned less had it not been for the humour and fantastic narration by Peter Kenny (if you get to listed to the audio version, you’ll love the part where Prentice’s brother Lewis imitates a radio tuning).
Generally the characters are the most important aspect of a book and never more so in this case, in the absence of a solid plot. Sadly I didn’t warm to these characters and therefore the book (the film version was better but still not one I’d rush to watch again). Has it put me off reading another Iain Banks book? No, but I will stop if it doesn’t engage me more than this one.
I put a call out in Facebook asking my friends whether they’d read the book or seen the TV series and had a mixed response, with some disliking (or not having read) the book but enjoying the series.
It often happens that readers of a book are disappointed by the visual version because it didn’t live up to their expectations but this time, it was the other way round for me. It was written in 1992 so I’m sure that if Mr Banks was alive to re-write (or at least edit) it, he’d probably make many changes; as most of us writers would with our ‘old’ works.
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