by Iain Banks
512 pages, Abacus
Review by Pat Black
Iain Banks' The Crow Road is utter rubbish. It is meretricious, sentimental, patronising pap from the kick-off, depicting an unrecognisable Scotland peopled by stock-character upper class toffs slightly less believable than The Beano's Lord Snooty. These pillocks are counterbalanced in stupidity by chippy, soft-slippered lefty contrarians with far too much money. It's also got one of literature's most obvious murder mysteries, interwoven with ham-fisted attempts to tie ugly humanity in with the rest of the universe...
Ah, I can't carry on.
I had hoped to start off with a giggle, in the spirit of Banks' The Wasp Factory – which printed absolutely scathing reviews on the inside leaf of the book itself. But it seems that, even in jest, I don't have it in me to criticise this book. It's just about my favourite novel.
(Take that, though, Google search engine optimisation.)
The Crow Road apparently refers to an old Scottish saying (which I confess this Scotsman had never heard of previously), meaning "death".
If you're "away the crow road", then you're not coming back.
Lots of people take the crow road in this book as we follow the narrator, Prentice McHoan, a student from the fictional town of Gallanach in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. He’s the classic young man on a journey, and he’s got a quest - to find a missing person - but along the way he has lots of sex, drink and drugs, and has his heart broken and mended. Everything a growing boy needs, in fact.
Prentice is drawn into a family mystery involving the disappearance of his favourite uncle, Rory McHoan - a peaceable, bohemian, motorbiking travel writer. When we begin, Rory's been gone for years, but the mystery takes a new twist after the death of Prentice's grandmother brings him back to Gallanach from Glasgow, where he's been studying.
At the funeral, Prentice meets up with his auntie Janice, uncle Rory's partner at the time of his disappearance. After bedding her - and it wouldn't be an Iain Banks book without some form of taboo-busting smut - Prentice comes into possession of some of Rory's papers and a few ancient computer disks. This unfinished writing project is called "The Crow Road".
In deciphering it, Prentice lifts the lid on secrets that plague the lives of his family - including his father, Kenneth, a children's writer and committed atheist, his uncle Fergus, who owns the local glassware factory, and also his childhood friend Ashley, whose uncle Lachlan, you might say, has one eye on events.
There's a mystery story - two, in fact, if we separate the quest to find out what happened to Rory and the struggle to reactivate and decipher his wonky old computer disks - but it's not a mystery novel. And despite the bildungsroman framing, Prentice's journey isn't the sole driver of the plot, either. This book has otherworldly concerns on its mind; in examining very big things in microcosm through Prentice's family, we gain an understanding of sorts about the universe - or at least, we form a truce with our own curiosity as to what it's all about. We miss a lot of things, Banks says. Often the greatest truths are right there under our nose.
It's curious to me that Prentice doesn't quite follow his father Kenneth's godless views on life, the universe and everything. Indeed, the book settles into a measured agnosticism; this seems at odds with the views of the author, who is on record as being an "evangelical atheist". Perhaps agnosticism is his Sunday view?
And, the book is very kind about Scotland. Barring a tete-a-fist with a street drunk in Glasgow (which, to be fair, could have happened in any major city), it does a great job of drawing a starry veil over the place. It even relies on the shortbread tin image of lochs, mountains and castles without seeming hackneyed. There’s even a little bit of Nessie in there, too - we harken back to ancient myths and legends through Kenneth's storytelling, as well as examining the geological processes that shaped the landscape itself over millions of years. By proxy, it also looks at the vagaries and vicissitudes which create and destroy us as people.
In being positive about Scotland and romanticising the landscape, The Crow Road avoids the sentimentalism of tosh like Brigadoon, or even the rugged chivalry of Sir Walter Scott's epics. That's a difficult trick. Very few have managed it - possibly the film director Bill Forsyth is the only other artist I can think of in the same bracket, who made Scotland seem like a magical place to a Scot still living there.
It's a sexy old book as well. That's par for the course for Banks, as we've already said, and a number of sticky trysts are lovingly depicted here. And yet... it isn't all about the sex. Banks dares to introduce us to love in these pages - the real thing, the stuff of whole lifetimes, and not stolen sweaty moments in the back of classic cars (although he ticks that box, too).
In stripping away the cynicism which swamps his other novels (it nearly sinks Complicity altogether), we're left with a more emotionally honest piece of work. And in his naivety and confusion, Prentice could be your young brother, a little cousin or nephew - or even yourself.
And The Crow Road is magical. That may be the single quality that lifts it above the level of a very good book to that of a great one. Amazing things surround us, Banks is saying. Look! The observatory... "special" Morse code... standing stones... Mythosauruses... "singing" glass... the two all-time worst speeches ever delivered... single malt whisky... it has so many unforgettable lyrical moments.
Things to criticise? Pffft. I could snark at the book's rather obvious villain, and Banks' Scotland seems a rarefied place which many people will not recognise... Taking us back to the top, in fact. But we'd be splitting hairs.
It does have its dark moments, like any Iain Banks novel. Indeed, an alternative title could be Three Funerals and a Wedding. But there are a lot of laughs to be had, in the face of the blackest events. Prentice's father's tempting of fate - or god - or his simple bad luck - is so outrageously funny that it seems even the characters want to giggle about it. Heart attacks and explosions are also triggers for great mirth. This is a novel that chooses to have a good laugh, even as it maps out that grim journey down the crow road we'll all have to take one day.
This is easily the author's most uplifting book, and one you'll want to return to. A masterpiece, one of the best novels written in my lifetime. And I challenge you to name a piece of prose with better opening and closing lines.