Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it – I don’t really like Iain Banks. This is based on a reasonable sampling of his work – I have read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, as well as The Crow Road and Espedair Street. I have also read The Wasp Factory before – many years ago, I suspect when I was trying to impress a fellow student with my edgy literary tastes.

Looking back at this list, for a writer I claim not to like much, I appear to have read quite a lot of his books – certainly more than for other writers I don’t like, where one book (sometimes less than that) is usually enough. This is a compliment to Banks as a writer – difficult and uncomfortable as I find his books, they’re almost impossible to leave in the middle if you allow them to get their claws into your psyche.

This is certainly the case for The Wasp Factory – which, by the way, I read for Book Club in June 2012. It was recommended by someone – I forget who, but certainly not me – and I was slightly resentful that not only was it by Iain Banks, but I’d already read it, and I didn’t really want to read it again. However, I reasoned, the whole point of Book Club is to read stuff that one wouldn’t otherwise, and to challenge one’s literary tastes, and for me Banks ticks both of those boxes, re-read or no.

The book is told from the point of view of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen-year-old sociopath who suffered a terrible accident when he was young and who now lives with his father Angus on an island just off the coast of Scotland, somewhere near Inverness. Frank’s (never-named) island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and Frank and his father often visit the nearest town of Porteneil, a few miles away. The Cauldhames used to be rich and powerful in the local area – the pub in Porteneil is named for their family – but Frank and his father are now all that are left.

They live a strange isolated existence, visited once a week by the taciturn Mrs Clamp who does the house, and in the main they keep to their own activities – Angus locked in his mysterious laboratory, Frank in a highly organised defence of his island territory, involving explosives, ritual, totemic sacrifice poles and divination using the Wasp Factory of the title.

Through Frank’s highly logical and yet deeply disturbed narrative we learn that he has killed three times – all children, all younger than he, and all despatched with no passion or anger, simply a cold and brutal logic. We also learn about his feckless mother, who abandoned him during his early childhood, and his best friend Jamie, a dwarf who commonly sits on Frank’s shoulders in the local pub in order to see the band, resting his pint on Frank’s head and chatting up girls.

We also find out about Frank’s older brother Eric, who experienced something so traumatic while working as a medical intern that he lost his sanity and degenerated into a dog-torturing psychopath. We don’t learn about this until later, though – the horrific details emerge gradually as Frank waits for Eric’s inevitable return home after his escape from a secure institution. Frank is clearly terrified of his brother, but also loves him with a blind distraction. He oscillates between obsessive preparation and renewal of his defences and an almost parental concern for Eric’s welfare – is he eating? Where is he sleeping?

When Eric does turn up on the island the book’s climax is shocking, nightmarish and not for the faint of heart. It also triggers a world-changing revelation for Frank, which leaves the reader re-assessing everything they have read over the last two hundred or so pages and in many ways renders the details of the story even more shocking in retrospect.

I knew the ending, but that in no way detracted from the visceral, hand-over-mouth horror of the final few pages of the book. In Frank, Banks has created a deeply deranged and damaged anti-hero who nevertheless elicits a good deal of sympathy in the final analysis – a fine balance to achieve, but Banks has pulled it off with a clarity and power that leave the reader gasping.

This book is rightly a modern classic. Reading it is a bit like running a marathon – it’s hard, it hurts, it leaves you staggering and it shakes up your world-view. I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t go to Iain Banks very often; he challenges his readers, often repeatedly within the same passages, and that’s never relaxing or comfortable. However, this isn’t a reason for not liking his books – I loved The Passage by Justin Cronin, and that made me as uncomfortable as hell; ditto most of The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. In fact, my discomfort is a compliment to these authors, a testament to the fact that they are so good at creating a steady and shocking stream of horrors and unpleasantnesses while maintaining my engagement with the story.

I haven’t changed my opinion of Iain Banks’ books. I still wouldn’t choose to read any more of them, given a free choice, but I’m no longer quite sure why – I suspect they might be Boy Books, appealing more to a young male mind than to my own (which is neither of those things). Be that as it may, however, Banks is a writer’s writer – his prose is spare, powerful and eye-wateringly expert, with no word wasted. I don’t need to enjoy his stories to admire his writing and to be affected by the characters and narratives he creates.

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