I discovered Iain Banks about a year ago (I mean I had heard of him I had just never tried reading any of his books) and reviewed The Wasp Factory. I picked up 'Canal Dreams' in the charity shop a while ago.
When I started reading it I was reminded of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, but I could not have been more wrong. Like Bel Canto it is the story of a hostage situation. Where Bel Canto has a famous opera singer trapped by the situation Canal Dreams has Hisako, a famous japanese cello player with a fear of flying, who is taking a sea journey to Europe via the Panama Canal, when the ship becomes caught up in a blockade and in the tense political situation they are taken over by terrorists who plan to use the ship as a base to shoot down a plane.
The story is told from the perspective of Hisako, the current situation being interspersed with details about her childhood, how she came to be a cello player and how her life up until then had led her to this situation. The story is also interspersed with dream sequences of a slightly disturbing kind ... at least I'd be pretty disturbed if they were my dreams.
"The sun came out flooding everything with light. She looked at the blood dripping from her hand, wondering how she'd cut herself.
The blood dribbled down her arm to her elbow and dripped from there and from her blood-glued fingers, falling in slow, ruby droplets down into the lake. But it was blood too. The whole lake. She lifted her gaze, from the red lapping tide at her feet, out across the calm, smooth surface, to the islands and the black boats. In the distance, a woman came up through the red surface, making a strange plaintive hooting noise, and holding something tiny but bright between thumb and forefinger of one hand. Hisako felt her vision zooming in: the pearl was the colour of the fog and cloud.
The stench of blood overpowered her and she fell." (p.66-67)
I was left with the impression that Hisako had lived her entire life in a slightly dreamlike state, that her absorption into music was so deep that the outside world was not really relevant. As the story reaches a crescendo with scenes of graphic violence the images from the dreams seem to merge with what is happening in real life, and I was left thinking that maybe the whole thing was just happening inside her mind. Or maybe it was her emotional detachment from reality that enabled her to deal with the situation. I am not quite sure why I am trying to avoid spoilers since I am sure that no one is going to rush off and find this book based on this vague and evasive review. The hostages are slaughtered and then the terrorists are slaughtered. I read the last part of the book in mainly horrified fascination as she enacts her revenge. I loved Wasp Factory so much, it is such a unique and inventive book, I think I could not help but seek a similar experience when reading more from Iain Banks, and inevitably be disappointed. Hisako herself is rather too vague a character, hints that she is hiding things, from her mother and her lovers, and from the reader. I did not feel much empathy with her, because she did not seem to care that much; I was detached because of her sense of detachment. Yes, I think vague and evasive as just the right words, for the review and the book.