Last up from my review backlog is 'The Quarry' by Ian Banks, his final novel before his untimely death in 2013. I have read several of his novels after discovering 'Wasp Factory' back in 2011 but none that had quite the same unique voice as my first encounter, however Kit, the autistic young man in The Quarry, does manage to be both quirky and thoroughly engaging.
Kit is caring for his father Guy who is dying of cancer, and the story covers a long weekend visit by a close-knit group of university friends. They are an odd group, seemingly bound together by their shared history as much as a liking for each other. They all lived together during their university years in the house owned by Guy, and appeared to have had quite a wild time of it. Their visit becomes an excuse to relive some of their past, but a particular old film project has become the focus of interest, something that most of the group's members want to find and ensure is destroyed. And then there is the lingering issue for Kit of who his mother is.
The story is narrated by Kit so we are only getting his impression of the relationships between the friends, some of whom he is closer to, while others still treat him like a child. There are plenty of unspoken tensions between the group, caused by earlier sexual entanglements, but also by differing political opinions and life choices. It is an interesting examination of how long term friendship operates, that they can like each other in spite of differences and their history is more important than any current disagreements. But it is Kit who is the focus of the story, his struggles to learn how to be with people, to get to grips with social niceties and understand how the world works. I liked the way the reader get inside his head and his thinking. He explains constantly how he sees things and the minutiae of his daily life. Here the group are visiting a local landmark after dark:
"Actually I do have a torch; a little credit-card-sized thing Mrs Willoughby gave me as a birthday present a couple of years ago, but it's for emergencies only, and I wouldn't call this an emergency. If somebody falls on the stairs and needs help, that would be an emergency; then I could use it.
Of course if I let them have the torch, that might help prevent them falling on the stairs in the first place, so maybe I should loan it to them after all. However, by the time I think all this through it's a bit late anyway, and I might even cause an incident if I suddenly dash up the stairs after them, yelling about having a torch and saying I'd forgotten, sorry, but here it is - who needs it most?
I get quite hot thinking about all this; it's just the kind of thing that trips me up and makes me panic. I start taking deep, measured breaths, the way Mrs Willoughby taught me." (p.139)
Guy's cancer sits there partly in the background of the story, but it bursts through intermittently, mostly in angry tirades. The awkwardness of the visitors is palpable, they try to be 'normal' with Guy but can't escape the fact that he is dying and they are all going to carry on living. The relationship between Kit and Guy has become fixed in a pattern of Kit dealing with the practicalities and Guy resenting him, almost blaming him for his dependency. It comes across as a very real and honest picture of someone suffering, devoid of any sentimentality, and you admire Guy's refusal to give in to acceptance, he sticks with the anger stage because it suits him:
"Guy breaks off, coughs again. He's looking sweaty, his eyes are bright.
'You might as well walk into a burning building and try and put out the fire through the medium of modern dance. But it means when you do lose your brave fucking battle - because it always has to be a brave fucking battle, doesn't it? You're never allowed to have a cowardly battle or just a resigned one; that'd be letting the fucking side down, that would ... Anyway, they can secretly think, Well, fucker didn't think positively enough, obviously. If that had been me, I'd have thought so positively I'd have been fine; I'd be fit as a fucking fiddle by now and out publicising my number one best-seller How I Beat the Big C and appearing on chat shows and talking with Spielberg's people about the fucking film version.' Guy coughs again. 'So you don't even get to die in peace; you don't even get to die without the implication that it's somehow your own fucking fault because you weren't fucking positive enough.'
It's your fault you smoked! I want to scream at him. I can feel tears trying to well up behind my eyes.
Guy looks at me, face flushed and glistening in the bedside light. I should probably take a facecloth to him. He smiles. Or maybe he sneers. It's something in between." (p.195)
Like several of his other books I have read the story is very much about human relationships and through the voice of the somewhat reticent Kit the reader becomes a fly on the wall watching this group of friends negotiate a somewhat sticky situation.