Saturday, 15 June 2013

Away the Crow Road - Farewell Iain Banks

Like many people across the country, our household was deeply affected by the announcement earlier this year that Iain Banks was a bit "poorly".  Chris and I rarely agree on books - Iain Banks was one of the few novelists we both enjoyed. So much so that when I just trawled our bookshelves this morning I found a Banks novel in every bookcase (sometimes the same copy twice). We were very saddened to hear about his cancer diagnosis, and even more to hear that he had died last weekend.

Last night we sat up very late to watch Kirsty Wark's recent interview with Banks which I would urge every one of you to catch if you can, regardless of whether you liked his writing. He comes across as such a marvellous human being. As he reflects on his astonishing output (29 novels); the irony of writing a novel about a man dying of cancer, only to get the diagnosis himself 87,000 words in; & what it feels like to face death, you just can't stop warming to the man. (Watch out for his enthusiastic fanboy gushing for his favourite authors, lovely). The interview is moving and funny and, despite the dark subject matter of many of his novels, he comes across as a  kind, tolerant human being, a bloke you'd like to share a pint with. Such as shame we no longer can.

I first read Banks sometime after The Wasp Factory came out, it being one of those literary must-reads at the time. Back then I think I hated quite a lot of it: I enjoyed the black humour, the quality of the writing was peerless, but the ghoulishness of Frank's actions, the violence, the nastiness was rather off-putting. I was glad I'd read it, but I put Banks aside for the next decade dismissing him rather as a writer that men would appreciate more than women. It was not until ten years later when on holiday with my family that I picked up another of his novels. Casting around for something to read, I thought I might as well try The Crow Road. From the moment the grandmother's pacemaker explodes at the funeral, I was absolutely hooked, so much so that I couldn't put it down. I even read in the back of the car all the way back from Bayeux, despite the inevitable car sickness. The Crow Road is a great mix of black humour, mystery, horror - a corking family saga with a heartbreaking father-son relationship at its centre.

But it was only when I met Chris, and discovered he was a massive fan, that I was truly converted. It is impossible to buy presents for my beloved. I will be forever grateful to Iain Banks that he usually had a book out in September, making at least one gift easy. I even got to meet the great man once. I happened to notice in the paper that he was doing a book signing near my office, so I trotted off to get a copy for Chris  and for a friend whose ex also had a birthday. The signing did confirm one prejudice, I was the ONLY woman in the queue of young geeky men, but it also confirmed what lovely bloke he was. Apparently he hated book tours, but I'd have never guessed, he was chatty, funny, happy to sign two copies of A Song of Stone and to pose for a picture. Turns out when I got back Chris already had a copy, but now he had one that was signed  and having met the author, I was very keen to read it. A Song of Stone is one of the darker novels, very very brutal, and bleak, but brilliant executed.

After that I dived into Banks old and new, particularly enjoying  The Bridge, a fascinating exploration of a totalitarian state that exists on a bridge to nowhere (one of my favourites) and  Complicity  in which a serial killer  takes out all evil people - corrupt politicians, arms dealers and the like in increasingly brutal fashion. I must confess some of his later novels The Business, Dead Air, The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn't grab me quite as much, but I can't say I've ever been disappointed by a Banks novel. And though I find the science fiction a bit dense - (I think I read  Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games before giving up) - I do recognise that the creation of the Culture is a towering achievement. We are grateful he managed to finish his last novel The Quarry, before he died. By all accounts it's vintage Banks - we can't wait to read it.

Banks was known for his love of whisky, even writing a travel book on the subject  (of course we have a copy), so Ian Rankin's twitter tribute was a perfect way to mark his death. Alas! We haven't got any whisky in the house at the moment, but it hasn't stopped us raising a glass or two to this wonderful writer, thanking him for the pleasure he has given us. He's away the crow road far far too soon.


DavidG said...

Banks was one of my favourite authors too, though in his Iain M. persona as an SF writer, which is not to say that 'The Business' isn't one of my all-time favourite novels. He was possibly even more of a standout in SF, where, in a market largely dominated by American authors with often distressingly right-wing views, Banks was clear that he was, in his own words, "reclaiming the high-ground of SF for the Left". I'll miss seeing any new books from that voice, but I'm glad we were all along for the ride.

John Wiswell said...

I had yet to read his fiction, having only crossed paths with his lovely non-fiction. It was brave of him to face cancer so publicly, and it made his death only days after announcing that he'd try chemo that much sadder. I loved how he navigated both Literary and Science Fiction without guilt.