Tuesday 19 July 2011

when the whatsit hits the fan

"Sometimes whether it is a family or ... any other institution, one has to wait for people to die, or until one knows that things won't matter any more for some reason or other. Though, it has to be said, some things seem never to cease mattering. Or, one has to wait until one knows one is about to die oneself, and so won't care, frankly, when the balloon goes up. You know; when the whatsit hits the fan."

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks was written 23 years after The Wasp Factory but the voice was immediately recognisable, the initial approach to the story being narrated by Tango, a down-on-his-luck glaswegian, who is putting up his mate Al, our hero. Al's cousin Fielding has turned up to try and persuade him back into the family firm, there is a corporate buy-out in the offing and together they try to garner the resistance. Mixed in with the buildup to the Extraordinary General Meeting and Grandma Win's birthday (the family matriarch) is the sad tale of Alban's life and loves and how he came to be estranged from his family. A little like The Wasp Factory (but only in the most superficial of ways) it is a story about family secrets, and the shadow of his mother's suicide that exerts unexpected influence over his life. Alban falls in love with his cousin Sophie, and their illicit teenage affair is abruptly torn apart, the cruel and ongoing separation continues to be a torment for Al in the years ahead, influencing his decisions and thwarting his happiness. He is something of a tortured soul, clinging to the past and not really getting to grips with what he wants out of life.

It's very much a book about the characters. I mean, what's not to love about Beryl and Doris, two elderly maiden aunts who like to get tipsy and are plainly very fond of their errant nephews., and the wonderful domineering Grandma Win, who puts on the frail-old-lady act whenever anyone threatens to thwart her plans. Despite being quite a large extended family they all have jobs in the family firm which keeps them in close contact and you really get a sense of what might be kindly interest sometimes turning into annoying interference. He excels too with atmosphere, moving the tale around the world, from Hong Kong to America to the wilds of the Scottish highlands, each equally evocative. The story hops back and forth, keeping your interest by giving you snippets of background information about the major players and details of Al's misspent youth. And just when it is running along smoothly and straightforward Iain Banks drops in this lovely poignant 6 page passage describing Irene's drowning:

"There is no discernible path any more. She stumbles down the side of the stream, nearly falling, then stoops to pick up another couple of rocks, adding them to the collections in the poacher's pockets. She thinks she feels something give as she adds the stones to the right pocket, and worries that the material will rip, letting the stones fall out. She recalls a fable about something like that. Aesop, probably. The fable of the woman who tried to carry too many rocks; that would be her. Not that it would ever be written, not that anybody would ever read it. Not that it mattered in the least. Not that anything did.
The tears roll down her cheeks and into the slapping waves, taking their own tiny cargo of saltiness with them.
She feels sorry for the child, for Alban.
The gently sloping shelf of the loch bed ends here; she walks off the hidden underwater cliff with a tiny surprised cry, bitten off, and vanishes immediately under the brown waves, her auburn hair sucked down last like fine tendrils of seaweed, leaving only a few bubbles which float briefly and then burst and vanish." (p.123-128)

He keeps getting hints that there is more to the story than anyone is letting on (like what Beryl tells him in the quote at the beginning of my review) and Alban seems to have dreams that are sometimes about his mother, her loss plainly preoccupies him more than he acknowledges.

It was just totally engaging, I loved the people and the places, even all the politicking behind the scenes about who wanted to sell, and who didn't, and who was just hedging their bets hoping the offer was going to rise. The loud Americans from Spraint Corporation were just a parody of themselves, spouting all the same stuff you read in the newspapers when foreign companies take over beloved British institutions. I was faintly disappointed with the climax of the story, it was not as momentous a revelation as I was expecting, and I was left wanting to know Sophie's story; what had happened to her, why did she not seem to pine for Al the way he had for her, who was the unnamed bloke she supposedly pined for in return. It was a bit of a neat happy ending, but I think that after all he'd been through Al deserved it.

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