Doorstopper of the Month: The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)

This was a rare case of reading a novel almost entirely because of its famous first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was familiar with the quote from the Bookshop Band song “Once Upon a Time” (video on bottom right here), which is made up of first lines from books, but had never read anything by the late Iain Banks, so when a copy of The Crow Road turned up in the free bookshop where I volunteered weekly in happier times, I snapped it up.

There’s a prosaic explanation for that magical-sounding opening: Grandma Margot had a pacemaker that the doctor forgot to remove before her cremation. Talk about going out with a bang! To go “away the crow road” is a Scottish saying for death, and on multiple occasions a sudden or unexplained death draws the McHoan clan together. As the book starts, Prentice McHoan, a slothful student of history at the university in Glasgow, is back in Gallanach (on the west coast of Scotland, near Oban), site of the family glassworks, for Margot’s funeral. He’ll be summoned several more times before the story is through.

Amid clashes over religion with his father Kenneth, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, plenty of carousing and whiskey-drinking, and a spot of heartbreak when his brother steals his love interest, Prentice gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to Uncle Rory, a travel writer who disappeared years ago. The bulk of the book is narrated by Prentice, but shifts into the third person indicate flashbacks. Many of these vignettes recount funny mishaps from Kenneth or Prentice’s growing-up years, but others – especially those in italics – reveal darker matters. As Prentice explores Uncle Rory’s files from a project called “Crow Road,” he stumbles on a secret that completely changes how he perceives his family history.

This reminded me of John Irving at his 1970s‒80s peak: a sprawling coming-of-age story, full of quirky people and events, that blends humor and pathos. In all honesty, I didn’t need the mystery element on top of the character study, but it adds direction to what is otherwise a pleasant if lengthy meander through the decades with the McHoans. I particularly appreciated how Prentice’s view of death evolves: at first he’s with Uncle Hamish, believing there has to be something beyond death – otherwise, what makes human life worthwhile? But Kenneth’s atheism seeps in thanks to the string of family deaths and the start of the Gulf War. “They were here, and then they weren’t, and that was all there was,” Prentice concludes; the dead live on only in memory, or in the children and work they leave behind. I can’t resist quoting this whole paragraph, my favorite passage from the novel:

Telling us straight or through his stories, my father taught us that there was, generally, a fire at the core of things, and that change was the only constant, and that we – like everybody else – were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn’t been told the whole story, but that sometimes people did behave badly, usually because some idea had taken hold of them and given them an excuse to regard other people as expendable (or bad), and that was part of who we were too, as a species, and it wasn’t always possible to know that you were right and they were wrong, but the important thing was to keep trying to find out, and always to face the truth. Because truth mattered.

That seems like a solid philosophy to me. I’ll try more by Banks. I also nabbed a free copy of The Wasp Factory, which I take it is very different in tone. Any recommendations after that? Could I even cope with his science fiction (published under the name Iain M. Banks)?

Page count: 501

My rating:

19 responses

  1. This is my favourite Banks. There’s an excellent TV adaptation of it, too. It’s so long since I read his early novels but I remember enjoying both Complcity and Espedair Street. The Wasp Factory is probably about as far away from The Crow Road as you can get unless you move on to the SF novels.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I went back and read your piece on this in the book club guide. I always enjoy getting that context and discussion of themes. I think I’ll wait a while before The Wasp Factory; I might even need to pretend it’s by a different author! I’ll keep an eye out for the other two you mention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lovely to hear that! Thanks, and I think that’s a wise strategy with The Wasp Factory.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you enjoyed The Crow Road. Espedair Street is huge fun. If you want to try his SF, The Player of Games is my favourite and easier to get into than most of them. I’m also fond of Stonemouth, which is another family drama. I must get around to re-reading more of him. His mainstream fiction is quite varied in tone/theme (apart from the family dramas). His third novel Canal Dreams is very different for instance and quite experimental if I remember. Whit, set in a cult, is the one I’d like to re-read next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, lots for me to discover! He’s just one of those authors that had passed me by until now. I think Paul is also a big fan (probably more of the SF).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And it goes without saying that The Wasp Factory is one of the best debuts ever!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Good to hear that. I might save it for Novellas in November.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never read him either but this was a lovely review and a comparison to peak Irving is enticing. I really liked that quotation too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Elements reminded me of The World According to Garp, and just Irving’s sense of humor in general.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never actually read any Banks, but this sounds like it might be a very good place to start. I’ve always been a little bit wary of The Wasp Factory for some reason, but this sounds something that would be more my kind of thing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m wary of The Wasp Factory, too, because I know it will be so different. I’ll wait and read it for RIP (scary books in October) or Novellas in November.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I read this years ago but remember loving it. I’ve put Edpedair Street on my 20 Books of Summer pile so hoping I enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll look forward to seeing what you make of that one.

      Like

  6. buriedinprint | Reply

    Susan’s enthusiasm for this title landed it on my TBR but the library only has one copy so, in the meantime, I enjoyed reading your review of it instead!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you know anything else by Banks?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Just the usual Wasp-Factory-is-amazing stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Paul at Halfman, Halfbook | Reply

    I love all of his writing. The Wasp Factory is mind-blowing and shocking, and that is all I will say…

    I really liked The Business, but not many people seem to agree with that

    With regards to his sci-fi, I’d start with The Player of Games as Annabel suggested. There is a book of poems that was published after he died and there is a non-fiction book on whisky that I really enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Paul! It’s great to hear from someone who knows his work well. I know you are choosy with the fiction you read, so I take special note of the authors you value.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Paul at Halfman, Halfbook | Reply

    Can also recommend The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I have a copy of the Quarry that I can send on when I have read it

    Liked by 1 person

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