When Iain Banks passed away earlier this year, there was naturally a huge outpouring of platitudes for him and his work. I realised that the only book of his I had ever read was Dead Air. And really, I should say tried to read, as I gave up on it a few chapters in, finding it intensely boring. But his debut from 1984 is one of those books that you never hear a bad word about so I gave it a whirl. And yeah. Everyone is RIGHT.
Narrated by sixteen year old Frank and set in a remote Scottish village, this is no ordinary coming of age novel. Abandoned by his mother, his older brother in a mental hospital, Frank whiles away his days with his father by indulging in some delightfully twisted games and rituals. Then word reaches them that Eric, the brother, has escaped from his confinement. Suddenly all bets are off and Frank’s offbeat but somehow cosy existence becomes a lot more fraught.
If you boil it down to its parts, The Wasp Factory is nothing more than a dysfunctional family dealing with the fallout of its own fucked up-ness. Even twenty years ago, that was hardly a groundbreaking story to tell. What set pulses racing then (and now) was both the way Banks tells the story (Frank’s voice is spot on) and the brilliantly macabre detailing and embroidery Banks piles on to the basic plot. I defy anyone to read the description of exactly what it was that sent Eric off the edge of the mental cliff and not be both utterly repulsed and completely awed.
Such jaw dropping moments of brilliance are all over this novel, but I don’t need to tell you that, do I? I imagine, like the rest of the world, you have already read it. Everyone knows what an insane talent Banks was. That he didn’t even make it to sixty years of age is just horribly sad. If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t read this yet, do it. If you have, read it again.