I picked 'The Crow Road' by Iain Banks off the shelf in Oxfam and read the first line "It was the day my grandmother exploded" and bought it. I just realised (you can see in the photo) it has a tyre print embossed across the front cover; Dunk asked if that was significant and when I thought about it it did seem that motor vehicles of various kinds are quite important to the unfolding of the tale therein.
I like big families. I come from a pretty big family and enjoyed counting up my 32 cousins when I was a child. Like 'The Steep Approach to Garbadale' this story is also mainly about an extended family and the ins and outs of their life. Our hero is Prentice and he is in love with his cousin Verity. But more importantly he wonders what has become of his favourite Uncle Rory who rode off into the night on a friend's motorbike years previously and hasn't been heard of since. The story however hops back and forth in time, which I found a bit confusing at first; sometimes the same group of cousins and friends were young children, then they were suddenly in their twenties. Prentice becomes fixated on the project that his uncle had been writing when he disappeared, trying to piece together the notes and random pieces of information that Rory had collected for what might have become either a film or a book or a piece of poetry, because really he didn't know which. Gradually, however, something much more sinister begins to emerge. And in the meantime Prentice struggles with his adolescence and making sense of his feelings for Verity.
I liked it because of the wonderful family portrait Iain Banks paints of both the family unit and the quirky individuals, and the wider environment of the town they live in, dominated by the glass works owned by Uncle Fergus. It has the same wicked sense of humour that I loved in 'Wasp Factory', like Chapter 5 that begins "Right, now this isn't as bad as it sounds, but ... I was in bed with my Aunty Janice." and the slightly outrageous behaviour of some of the characters: here Aunt Charlotte wants to conceive a child under an ancient yew tree because of the 'magical Life Force':
"It was a dark and stormy night (no; really), the grass under the under the ancient, straggling, gnarled yew was sodden, and so she and her husband, Steve, had to settle for a knee-trembler while Charlotte held onto one of the overhanging boughs, but it was there and then - despite the effects of gravity - that the gracile and quiveringly prepossessing Verity was conceived, one loud night under an ink black sky obscuring a white full moon, at an hour when all decent folk were in their beds and even the indecent ones were in somebody's, in the quaint Perthshire village, back in the fag end of the dear old daft old hippy days.
So my aunt says, and frankly I believe her; anybody wacko enough ever to have bought the idea that there was some sort of weird cosmic energy beaming out of a geriatric shrub in a back-end-of-nowhere Scottish graveyard on a wet Monday night probably hasn't the wit to lie about it." (p.60)
In fact I think the pleasure of the story lies mostly in the characters and the ties that bind the family together; I grew to like them all and care about where their lives were going. Monkey keeps commenting how I am reading a lot of depressing books so actually it was nice to read this and be entertained rather than challenged. I will give you the other quote I wrote down, mainly because I love meringue (though I am not sure there is any such thing as a seal's 'den'):
"My mother, new and slim as ever, ploughed crunchingly into the loaf-sized meringue cream cake like a polar bear breaking into a seal's den. She gave a tiny giggle as a little dollop of cream adhered to the tip of her nose; she removed it with one finger, licked the pinky, then wiped her nose with her napkin, glancing round the restaurant through the confusing topography of slats and uprights of the seats and screens, apparently worried that the minor lapse in hand-mouth coordination was being critically observed by any of the surrounding middle-class matrons, perhaps with a view to passing on the scandalous morsel to their opposite numbers in Gallanach and having mother black-balled from the local bridge club. She needn't have worried; from what I had seen, getting a little bit of cream on your nose was practically compulsory, like getting nicked on the cheek in a ritualised duel before being allowed to enter a Prussian drinking sodality. The atmosphere of middle-aged ladies enjoying something wicked and nostalgic was quite palpable." (p.265)
Read enjoy, it's like comfort food for the soul.