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Review of ‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

Published by Little, Brown 2012

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Stonemouth’ was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

Iain Banks, who also writes science fiction under the name Iain M Banks, has written twenty-five novels in as many years and shows no sign of slowing down. There’s something about authors with such a volume of work to their names that I find unsettling. How difficult would it be to remember all your books in sufficient detail to avoid repetition? Do writers like Banks have their work indexed and searchable so they can double check, for example, that Phelpsie or Wee Malkie, minor characters in Stonemouth, haven’t appeared before?

In truth, you don’t need to be a die-hard Iain Banks fan to know that these characters, or people like them, have appeared before and will undoubtedly appear again. While Stuart Gilmour, the protagonist and narrator, has some depth the rest are largely stereotypes verging on caricatures: the patriarchs of the town’s two crime rings with their loyal but dim sons and beautiful but independent daughters (one of whom Gilmour, of course, falls in love with); the bisexual best friend who is a heavy drinker and drug taker; the son of a wealthy estate owner whom they all befriend to get access to what is effectively a giant playground; the old man who takes Gilmour under his wing in an odd kind of friendship who turns out to be his future girlfriend’s grandfather. And so on.

Gilmour, and his friends and enemies, are the mix of smart/thick, druggy/clean, friendly/violent people you’d expect to meet in a town like Stonemouth which – just like any other provincial, semi-industrial town in slow decline in Britain – has everything from sink estates to hunting estates, but I didn’t see enough of them to feel I was involved in their lives. Even though Gilmour relates the story I never felt sufficiently drawn in to care about, or really believe, his motivations and feelings.

While Banks is a more than competent writer, Stonemouth doesn’t have the breadth or depth of imagination of some of his other work. While he includes his trademark moments of sickening violence set within everyday surroundings, it is in the end a very straightforward story, and one which did not entirely convince me.

Banks also makes a bold effort to write for the digital age, but it doesn’t quite come off. I don’t really believe Gilmour would speculate about whether he’d have time to change his Facebook profile to ‘dead’ while falling into the river Stoun; it seems gratuitous and as if Banks is trying to persuade us he’s up with the times. The digital references go on throughout the book – in fact the plot point on which the whole book turns, revealed late in the narrative, depends on one specific aspect of the digital world – but mostly they don’t feel at all natural. It may be that only a ‘digital native’ – at best, someone born no earlier than 1990 – will be able to truly write about this stuff in an uncontrived way. There is certainly a theory going around that the current upsurge in historical fiction – that is, anything set in the 1970s or before – is a result of mainstream, established authors not being able to include the digital world in their narratives in a convincing way. So they simply resort to setting their stories in a time when such things didn’t exist.

I also had a problem with the voice. Gilmour is a bright, articulate young man who left Stonemouth five years ago for reasons that form the centrepiece of the book, but as a first person narrator he doesn’t quite ring true. Often we get one or two paragraphs of pure description of his surroundings, almost as if Banks is filling up his word count. Are we meant to believe Gilmour has simply stopped what he is doing and is telling us what he can see, because he feels like it? There’s an uncomfortable mix of Scottish colloquialisms and standard English. Gilmour’s narration is straight – most of the time – even though he’s from Stonemouth, and I could live with that, but it was the variation in the written dialogue that caused me problems. I wasn’t convinced that Gilmour, Ellie and others would speak in perfect English, while often the people around them are speaking with strong accents.

Set over five days and told by Gilmour in the present tense, albeit with substantial past tense flashbacks, Stonemouth redeems itself by revealing gradually the events of five years ago, and by building to an admirable if predictable climax. Despite its shortcomings, it is definitely a page turner.

The book doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t trick you, and it probably won’t surprise you; it just lets Gilmour tell you his story. Those more familiar with Scotland will see some subtleties in the commentary – nothing has changed since Gilmour left five years before, despite growing political independence and the promises that went with it – but most readers will simply recognise the social and economic variety and inequity that goes with the slow decline of any provincial town or city in Britain, the United States or indeed any developed country. Couple that with a straightforward tale of love, violence, betrayal and family honour, and you have a familiar and universal story that resonates all the way from Romeo and Juliet to The Sopranos.

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