The Crow Road by Iain Banks
Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances.
On the first page of The Crow Road, Banks delivers one of the best opening lines I’ve ever experienced: 'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.'
And Banks just doesn’t seem to stop with his somber yet somehow hilarious prose, drawing us deeply into the McHoan family, and allowing us to explore their histories, their personalities, and their reprehensible yet utterly relatable behaviours.
This is story of family, love, and loss; Banks gives us Prentice - a narrator akin to an educated loose cannon - and tells Lochgair’s stories with time and space-slipping ease, weaving a rounded yet disorienting picture of family secrets and unrest. There’s nothing linear about the plot, and this is where the magic lies, allowing Banks to hint, tease, and foreshadow his way through the McHoan family values. He swaps from Prentice’s first-person narrative, to that of an all-seeing third-person, and back again; a foreshadowing device in itself, I was living.
Although filled with philosophical ponderings, and commentary on life and death, Banks also inserts little vignettes of memory, which are often hilarious in their delivery. That life can be filled with sorrow, yet with little moments of complete joy, is perfectly true, and Banks highlights this perfectly.
Banks’s characters are so well depicted that they feel like living, breathing people. He nails the family relationships, love hand in hand with bitter jealousy and frustration, and gives us these people as ours to love.
The depictions of Gallanach and other areas of beautiful Scotland were written lyrically and beautifully. The juxtaposition of these settings against those in Glasgow were of a considerable contrast, and, as someone who sticks mainly to confines of Strathclyde, made me ashamed not to have seen far more of my beautiful country than I have.
And the man is away the crow road himself. One of my favourite Scottish authors, all we can do is feel blessed he has left behind such a wealth of stories and talent for us to remember to him with.
“These were the days of fond promise, when the world was very small and there was still magic in it. He told them stories of the Secret Mountain and the Sound that could be Seen, of the Forest drowned by Sand and the trees that were time-stilled waters.
Then, every day was a week, each month a year. A season was a decade, and every year a life.”