The Crow Road – Iain Banks

crow road 2The Crow Road by Iain Banks was published in 1992 and subsequently filmed as a mini-series by the BBC. The untimely death at the age of 59 in June 2013 of Banks, the best-selling author of 29 books, prompted me to revisit his work and The Crow Road was one of his novels that I had never previously read.

Born in Dunfermline, Fife, Banks’ novels are inherently Scottish in tone.  In 2008, The Times named Banks as one of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945″, but something that I hadn’t realised was that he was also the author of several science fiction novels writing under the name of Iain M. Banks and was described by The Guardian as “the standard by which the rest of SF is judged”.

The Crow Road starts with one of the best opening lines of any novel: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” What follows is a family saga that focuses on death as the main theme. Banks himself said that the book was about “Death, sex, faith, cars, Scotland, and drink” (Iain Banks and the Fiction Factory).

The narrator of most of the book is Prentice McHoan. It is Prentice’s grandmother’s phrase ‘away the crow road’, an old Scottish saying indicating the path of death or dying, that gives the book its title.

Featuring three main families, the McHoans, the Urvills and the Watts, each depicting different strata of society, their lives are intertwined throughout the narrative bringing into question aspects of class, religion and loyalty. Banks uses a series of disjointed flashbacks to follow Prentice through his 22 years of life (which proved to be a little confusing to me at first because I wasn’t sure which period of time was being related) in a quest to discover more about the death of his uncle Rory 8 years previously. In true detective story form the reader is led through a series of clues from the past that must be pieced together. Family secrets and several mysterious deaths add to the puzzling maze that must be solved before it comes together in an unexpected climax.

This was a page turning book, dark but humorous at the same time, with comedic moments and grisly passages, but one constant that came through was Banks’ love for cars, with every opportunity taken to mention marques and models, and his passion for Scotland with his portrayal of its beautiful and picturesque landscape.

The Crow Road is a coming-of-age story with a twist that only Banks could have written and is a book that I am glad that I finally made the effort to read.

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