A review of The Crow Road, by Iain Banks
Yesterday the literary world was saddened by the news that Scottish writer Iain Banks is suffering from cancer.
Banks is the author of my favourite ever novel, The Crow Road, a tale about an eccentric Scottish family living in the fictional town of Gallanach, which was published back in 1992 and subsequently filmed as a mini-series by the BBC.
Hearing the news reminded me of how much I loved the book when I was younger, although it’s a couple of years now since I last read it.
The book takes its title from an old Scottish saying ‘Away the crow road’, which means that someone is dead or dying. Appropriate for a darkly humorous novel whose main theme is death and famously opens:
“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.”
The story begins as Prentice McHoan returns home from university in Glasgow for the funeral of his grandmother, where an unfortunate incident with a forgotten pacemaker leads to said explosion.
Prentice discovers some old papers belonging to his uncle Rory, a writer, who disappeared eight years earlier. Drawn into the musings of the man he adored as a child, Prentice becomes determined to solve the mystery behind his uncle’s disappearance.
The Crow Road is a sprawling family saga with a complex narrative that weaves through the lives of the dysfunctional McHoan clan, as well as their friends and lovers. The story is set against the vivid backdrop of a Scotland that is rich with history, striking in its beauty and perfectly accents the emotional moments within the novel.
The McHoans are a curious bunch: Prentice is estranged from his father Kenneth, a children’s book writer and former teacher, after refusing to embrace atheism and deny God; his uncle Hamish invented his own religion; brother Lewis is a stand-up comic and very likely to steal the girl Prentice is in love with and Aunt Fiona died years earlier in a car accident, leaving behind her rich husband, Fergus, and twin daughters.
Family is an important theme and Banks manages to craft an intricate web of relationships between the Gallanach clans. In true Gothic style, events echo through time to have consequences years later; the son affected by the father’s actions. For all their arguments over the meaning of life, Prentice and Kenneth are more similar than they could ever realise, as the story parallels their own experiments with self-discovery by flashing back to Kenneth’s youth.
Prentice is a flawed but likeable hero, consumed with whisky, sex, drugs and finding his own direction in life but also dogged in confronting his family history and accepting its influence on his identity. At times he sinks into self-pity and his drunken embarrassments add humour to the novel’s darker moments. But Prentice is also a genuine and thoughtful character, who ponders the meaning behind it all until loss forces him to question his perspective.
This is one of Banks’ more accessible books, although it examines some heavyweight issues, using Prentice’s musings on life to debate the nature of humanity, religion and death. The characters are all beautifully observed and the writing is intelligent and powerful. Banks captures small moments in the lives of the characters that have enormous emotional significance and often become part of something greater.
With elements of mystery, family saga and literary opus, The Crow Road is an intense and often poignant read that explores family conflict and the fragility of life. I can’t wait to read it again.
Find out more about the book:
The Crow Road on Amazon (affiliate link)
The Crow Road on Goodreads