The Crow Road

I love plot, which is why I love genre novels more than ‘literature’, but Iain Banks’ The Crow Road is the kind of literature I could read at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t have much in the way of plot (until you get to the end) and concerns itself mostly with the meandering life of Prentice McHoan and his philosophical views on religion, sex, politics and idiots. So it’s a story about a young man finding himself, a theme done to death before and long after its publication.

But it’s so much more than that. Banks is a funny writer, always ready to off on a tangent and make you either nod in agreement, or roll your eyes at a rant he sneaks into many of his stories. But he’s always entertaining. Prentice can come off a little whiny sometimes, railing against a multitude of life-is-unfairs. And God. God plays a major part, with Prentice a believer. Or is he a believer only to piss off his dad, a strident unbeliever?

Coming home for his grandmother’s funeral (the famous exploding opening sentence), Prentice reflects on his life so far, and where it is going. He has no idea of course, but in the process of learning you get a feeling for his politics (“in certain areas [being an idiot] is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement”) and his connection to the beautiful Scottish countryside (“The flames had passed over those flattened blades and consumed their heather neighbours on either side while they themselves had remained, made proof against the blaze and guaranteed their stark survival just by their earlier oppression”).

I love the conflict between freedom and the ties which family require. His difficult relationship with his father represents everything he doesn’t want at the start, admiring instead the freedoms of his world-travelling uncle Rory. Slowly, the novel unravels his romanticism, coming to realise his uncle’s loneliness and the envy he held for the warmth of his brother’s, Prentice’s dad, family. Revelations that could come so pat are here portrayed in such a fashion as to make the reader get lost in the novel and realise them with Prentice, rather than seeing them phoned in from three hundred pages back.

The book never lets you settle into a linear path. It jumps back and forth at different timelines, sometimes making you wonder where the hell you are, but never annoying you. His depiction of children is fantastic. The way they react to storytelling from old Mr McHoan, who can pull a story from any object lying about the Scottish countryside and make it epic, while engaging in amusing banter from sceptical ankle-biters, gives the book so much depth you want to hang out with everybody in it. It’s as if you’ve known them all your life.

In the end, the novel turns into a mystery. Banks doesn’t make it abrupt, turning it from family saga to a crime novel at the flick of a switch. It comes at you entirely naturally, just like Prentice’s realisation of who he loves.

The book, then, is a must, something that put me in a trance rather than speeding up the pulse. I never saw the TV series, fearing it would ruin the book forever, but I think I might have to put in my Netflix queue and get on with it.

An absolute classic.

Further Reading:

A Funny Book with a Lot of Death in it, Jo Walton

The Independent’s misguided review from 1992

A traveller’s guide to The Crow Road

Iain Banks: the Final Interview