Iain Banks (www.iain-banks.net)
Little Brown (www.littlebrown.co.uk)
I didn’t have to read too far into Iain Banks’ latest novel, Stonemouth, to realise that I’ve been more than a little unfair to him over the course of the past few years. As a younger man, I read The Crow Road, having enjoyed the BBC television adaptation. I remember very little about either TV series or novel – vague memories of a game played while driving at night that involved identifying cars in the distance by the shape of their taillights – except that I enjoyed both immensely, which should speak more to my atrocious long-term memory than to the skill of the author. Since then, I have avoided Banks’ work, a little voice in the back of my head repeating the mantra that here was an author with nothing to offer me, a man who exists too far along the literary spectrum to appeal to my baser sensibilities.
As Stonemouth opens we find ourselves standing on a bridge with Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is back in his home town – the north-eastern Scottish town of the book’s title – after a five year exile, punishment for an unnamed sin committed against the Murstons, the town’s premier criminal family. He has returned for a funeral, the funeral of Donald Murston’s father, at the old man’s request, and it is immediately clear that he is back under sufferance, and with the understanding that he is gone again as soon as the funeral is over. As Stewart settles in, and gets reacquainted with old friends, we begin to get glimpses into his past, growing up in Stonemouth, and his budding relationship with the girl who would turn out to be the love of his life, Ellie Murston. And, as the weekend progresses, it becomes apparent that not everyone is aware of Stewart and Donald’s agreement, leaving the young man wondering if he’s likely to make it through his stay in one piece.
Stonemouth is part coming-of-age story, part (lost) love story, part small-town gangster story. It’s a frequently laugh-out-loud portrait of life in a small town as seen through the eyes of someone who has been away for some time and has returned to find something at once familiar and completely alien. Banks has tapped into a younger generation, and his portrayal of these people – people in their mid-twenties, straddling that fine line between the last lingering remnants of youth and true adulthood – is spot on. Everyone we meet over the course of this weekend is introduced to the reader in terms of their school relationship to Stewart – he was in the year above, she was two years below, he was in the same year – as if everything in this town revolves around, and is defined by, school. There are also more obvious traits, which quickly begin to get under the reader’s skin, but which do define people of a certain age in this country, such as the ubiquitous question mark, turning random statements into meaningless questions:
Jolie played with her empty G&T glass, revolving it on the white tablecloth. ‘Oh, just because they take over your life. They become your life. I sort of had plans? But, well.’
The novel simmers with barely-repressed violence throughout, and when we learn exactly what Stewart has done – in a reveal about halfway through that is, quite simply, a work of genius – it’s clear why the Murstons are out for his blood. Aside from Ellie’s brothers – certifiably nuts, each and every one – there’s the imposing figure of Powell Imrie, and every wannabe on the streets of Stonemouth out to make a name for himself by bringing the head of Stewart Gilmour to Donald Murston. Banks knows how to ratchet up the tension and there are a handful of scenes that leave you forgetting to breathe. When violence does finally erupt, it comes from an unexpected direction, catching the reader completely unawares, and is all the more effective for it.
Stonemouth shows a writer comfortable and confident in his chosen field. Perfectly plotted and beautifully written, it presents a cast of characters that fairly leap off the page from the outset. It is a funny novel – there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – but its power lies in characters with whom we can identify – the banter between Stewart and best friend Ferg, for example, spotlights two very believable people that we may have, at some stage in the dim and distant past, known or even, in some cases, been – and a story in which we can invest to the point where the outcome is as important to the reader as it is to Stewart Gilmour. Banks is a writer not to be missed (and certainly not to be consigned to the “too literary for my liking” shelf) and, on the strength of Stonemouth, is arguably one of the most entertaining and exciting talents working in Britain today. He is a writer worth your attention, and Stonemouth should be on everyone’s “must-read” list this year.