I’m deeply saddened by the news of Iain Banks’ death, partly because his novels have been part of my life for the last 20 years – I read many of them during my late teens and early twenties, when I was leaving school and trying to piece together an adult identity for myself. It was a great revelation (and a comfort) to meet Banks’s protagonists, who listened to the same music as I did, struggled with girls as I did, and felt as aimless and slothful as I often did.
The news was also difficult because it came on such a beautiful day. Jesus Christ, the sun is shining and I’ve just lit the barbecue. Please, not today. Especially as it’s so reminiscent of another lovely June day, 21 years ago, when my life-long relationship with Banks began, and I spent the day on the sofa reading his first novel, The Wasp Factory (and isn’t that one of the best titles you’ve ever heard? One whose power is only heightened when you reach that particular chapter of the book). I’d bought a copy the day after I finished my A-levels – a reward for all that intensive revision-timetable design.
I’d bought The Wasp Factory on the recommendation of my local paper, which featured Banks when he did a signing to promote his new book The Crow Road. I’d never heard of him, but as the article said he was ‘a firm favourite amongst students’ (and I was intending to start university the following year), this was clearly the sort of author I should be reading. I’ve been grateful to the Welwyn-Hatfield Times ever since, and went on to devour almost everything that Banks has written. I’m looking ahead to his last novel, The Quarry, with a mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that there won’t be any more books quite like it.
And there is very little out there which is quite like The Wasp Factory – it was described on first publication as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’ by the Irish Times and ‘the literary equivalent of a video nasty’ (remember those?) by the Sunday Express. And yet in spite of this, I remember being immediately impressed with the way in which Frank, the central character, was drawn with such clarity. He’s recognisable, but also disturbingly alien; and as the plot develops he becomes even more so, each revelation more lurid and shocking than the last. And yet despite his crimes, your sympathy for him grows through the novel, and he ends the book quite a different character from the one which you thought you knew at the beginning.
If your stomach isn’t strong enough for The Wasp Factory, I’d recommend The Crow Road. It’s a family saga with that characteristic Banks twist, the opening line – ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded‘ – giving you some idea of what to expect. Again, Banks’s protagonist is engaging and extremely well-drawn, albeit somewhat deluded – but thankfully not nearly as psychopathic as Frank. What’s interesting is how much range Banks demonstrates in this book, moving between genres with ease and bringing a different slant to established tropes and conventions.
The Crow Road means so much to me that I took it with me when I was lucky enough to meet Banks. I did so twice, in 1993 and 2011 – on both occasions, I had him sign my copy of the book. The last time was in Birmingham, when he spoke at the local Science Fiction group’s 40th anniversary meeting. At the signing afterwards, I jokingly said ‘See you in 2029!’, a remark that now makes my heart ache. Along with my copy of The Wasp Factory, bought on a bright June day in 1992, I’ll continue to re-read and treasure both books for a long time to come. Rest in peace, Iain Banks.