Monday, 7 May 2012

Stonemouth - A Review

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Iain Banks' work; he is just about the only author whose books I get when they are released in hardback, rather than wait on the paperback publication. I've also started reading his Science Fiction works, published as Iain M Banks, but for the sake of clarity references to his oeuvre in this review are specifically to the "non-M" books.

After a number of books which failed to reach the heights of his previous works, his last book, Transition, was something of a return to form. It was with some anticipation and trepidation that I embarked upon Stonemouth. Would I be disappointed? Was Transition's improved quality partly because it was border-line science fiction? (I'm told that the Iain M Banks novels have remained more consistent than the non-M works)

The answers to those questions? "Yes and No" and "I think so".

Stonemouth is a (fictional) town in the North-East of Scotland, somewhere between Aberdeen and Peterhead. Our protagonist, Stewart, is returning to the town for the first time in five years for the funeral of Joe Murston - the patriarch of the local "mafia" family. Joe also happens to be the grandfather of Stewart's former fiancée, his wedding to whom was cancelled when he was run out of the town just a week before the nuptuals were due.

The subject matter is vintage Banks - a story told in flashbacks, telling of friendships and secrets, family ties and betrayals, all sprinkled with helpings of violence, sex, drugs and politics - although there is less violence than one may expect. The book shares a lot with its predecessors - The Crow Road in particular - but lacks their ambition. Where The Crow Road is an epic, multi-later, inter-generational tail, Stonemouth is more linear with less depth and less dramatic secrets. So yes, Stonemouth is in this respect disappointing, as if Banks' was only firing on two cylinders, recycling ideas, re-treading plots and updating previous novels. 

This idea of him seeling to update previous works struck me in the first chapter where there are copious references to pop-culture in a way which will very quickly date the book. On page 10, for example, Family Guy, Cee Lo Green and "Tinchy featuring Tinie" get a mention. It seems as if Banks' is trying too hard to get into the mind of a 25 year old and the result is that it both jars and fails to be authentic: Stewart doesn't sound like any 25 year old I know - at least not initially.

(This lack of authenticity is compounded by unfortunate mention of the dominance and money of Celtic and Rangers and the perennial debate on them playing in England - although Banks' was never to know what was about to befall Rangers around the time of publication of the novel!)

It is a novel of promise but of poor execution. Elements of plot get picked up, played with and put aside. The attempt at creating an atmosphere of menace rarely does. Stewart seems content to spend longer than strictly speaking necessary in the company of those we are told are so keen to hurt him. And whilst the impending sense of doom does reach a climax, it also lacks a certain authenticity.

For all these criticisms - and a number more beside - Stonemouth is an enjoyable romp. After a few chapters I put my early reservations and aside and settled into the book as it settled into its stride. And in the end, I did kinda like it.

That said, I can't escape the conclusion that it is sub-standard compared to Banks' previous work and, if it weren't a Banks' novel, I wouldn't be rushing to read anything else by the author. Whilst Transition may have been Banks' back at (or close to) his best, it seems that his best is now reserved for works with a Science Fiction bent. He's still someway off his best when it comes to non-genre fiction.


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