And so I approached this novel with anticipation but also a little warily, like meeting up with a long-lost anarchic outspoken friend from back in collage and half-hoping he hasn’t fallen into mid-life tedium. Could Banks have come up with a daringly original work here, decades after his debut? Well, no, not really. Not in my opinion.
In truth, you don’t need to be a die-hard Iain Banks fan to know that these characters, or people like them, have appeared before (ditto the plots, “twentysomething returns to hometown for a funeral and seeks to rekindle a lost love of youth, with a sort of mystery attached” – could be The Crow Road synopsis as well as Stonemouth). While Stuart Gilmour, the protagonist and narrator, has some depth, the rest are largely stereotypes verging on caricatures: the patriarchs of the town’s two crime rings with their loyal but dim sons and beautiful but independent daughters (one of whom Gilmour, of course, falls in love with); the bisexual best friend who is a heavy drinker and drug taker; the son of a wealthy estate owner whom they all befriend to get access to what is effectively a giant playground; the old man who takes Gilmour under his wing in an odd kind of friendship who turns out to be his future girlfriend’s grandfather. And so on.
Gilmour, and his friends and enemies, are the mix of Irvine Welsh-like smart/thick, druggy/clean, friendly/violent people you’d expect to meet in a town like Stonemouth which – just like any other provincial, semi-industrial town in slow decline in Britain – has everything from sink estates to hunting estates, but I didn’t see enough of them to feel I was involved in their lives. Even though Gilmour relates the story I never felt sufficiently drawn in to care about, or really believe, his motivations and feelings – especially in his romantic hankering for former love Ellie, which tip over into the mawkishly sentimental on occasions; Banks has always trodden a fine line here. I found myself increasingly irritated by their toing and froing along the lines of “shall we get back together?” “I don’t know” “yes, maybe, I need to think” etc. I just wanted to scream I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU DECIDE JUST GET ON WITH IT!
While Banks is a more than competent writer, Stonemouth doesn’t have the breadth or depth of imagination of some of his other work. While he includes his trademark moments of sickening violence set within everyday surroundings to great effect, it is in the end a very straightforward story, and one which did not entirely convince me. A case in point is Banks’ narrative voice… whereas The Crow Road hit us from the start with it’s first line (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”), Stonemouth opens with a single word “Clarity”.
I also had a problem with the voice. Gilmour is a bright, articulate young man who left Stonemouth five years ago for reasons that form the centrepiece of the book, but as a first-person narrator he doesn’t quite ring true. Often we get one or two paragraphs of pure description of his surroundings, almost as if Banks is filling up his word count. Are we meant to believe Gilmour has simply stopped what he is doing and is telling us what he can see, because he feels like it? There’s an uncomfortable mix of Scottish colloquialisms and standard English. Gilmour’s narration is straight – most of the time – even though he’s from Stonemouth, and I could live with that, but it was the variation in the written dialogue that caused me problems. I wasn’t convinced that Gilmour, Ellie and others would speak in perfect English, while often the people around them are speaking with strong accents.
Set over five days and told by Gilmour in the present tense, albeit with substantial past tense flashbacks, Stonemouth redeems itself to a degree by revealing gradually the events of five years ago, and by building to an admirable if predictable climax, and slightly less admirable or suspenseful resolution..
The book doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t trick you, and it probably won’t surprise you; it just lets Gilmour tell you his story. Couple that with a straightforward tale of love, violence, betrayal and family honour, and you have a reasonable semi-epitaph in the last published novel of Iain Banks (The Quarry, his last, was posthumous) before he succumbed too-soon to gallbladder cancer in 2013, after marrying his long time love.
He proposed by asking her to "do me the honour of becoming my widow." Sums Banks’ writing up really, quirky, humorous, sentimental but never shying away from acknowledging and facing the darker elements of being… RIP Iain Banks.
And a fond farewell to Scotland too as I head across the sea to the only UK country not on the British Mainland (watch the UK video previously posted if confused): Northern Ireland, which is variously described as a country, province or region within the United Kingdom. Located in the northeast of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland shares a border to the south and west with the Republic of Ireland.
Getting to Northern Ireland is a doddle – no passport or visa checks required, even in this post-Brexit era – I just book a 11.30am StenaLine ferry from the fishing port Cairnryan on the east coast of Loch Ryan for €38.00 and land up in Belfast, the major port and capital city of Northern Ireland, a land long beset by troubles – political, economic, religious, military, and criminal.
The novel set here is Belfast Gate by local author Tony MacAuley. The Belfast Gate refers to the euphemistically named ‘peace gates’ intended to keep sectarian factions apart but also dividing communities. The first peace gates were erected in the 1920s – before a certain Donald Trump and his dreams of a “big, beautiful wall” was even born. As of 2017 they continue to multiply.
The novel is described thus: “It's Belfast in 2019 and despite more than twenty years of peace, scores of so-called peace walls continue to separate Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Jean Beattie's grief turns to anger when police refuse to open the peace gate at the end of her street to allow her best friend's funeral procession through to her church on the other side of the peace wall. The gate remains closed because local youths, led by Sam on one side and Seamie on the other, are recreational rioting. Comforted by her friends Roberta, Bridget and Patricia from the cross-community pensioners' club, Jean vows the gate will be opened. On the fiftieth anniversary of the erection of the peace walls, in the era of Brexit and Trump's border wall, the themes in Tony Macaulay's laugh-out-loud novel resonate far beyond Northern Ireland.”
See you on the other side!