When I was a teenager , there were two authors whose books I thought were essential reading – Iain Banks and Terry Pratchett. So I was quite sad to learn last week that Banks has gall bladder cancer.
I’m guessing that the first book of his that I read was The Wasp Factory. It is a brutal book, telling the story of a teenager tracking the journey home of a mentally disturbed older brother. The narrator himself has obsessive tendancies and as the book gets deeper we find out how maladjusted he is. It’s fair to say its a grusome book.
But there are moments of dark humour throughout (I remain especially fond of the Uncle’s suicide attempt ) and Banks pulls off a breathtaking twist in the closing chapters of the book. It is a novel that I have read a number of times and in the wake of last week’s news I think I might have to pull it off the shelf again.
One of the reasons that I enjoyed reading Banks so much when I was a teenager was because his writing seemed so exotic. In part it was the thrill of reading truly adult literature – his characters drank booze and had sex, as we aspired to do at that age. But each of his books had its own distinct weirdness, and were world away from my GCSE set text of Silas Marner. Like George Eliot’s novel, Banks’ books may contain obvious moral messages. I always found the central message running through much of his output about the dangers of exerting control over others a powerful one, as I guess was true for many other teenagers.
But Banks never wrote about mundane events like the discovery of orphaned children. Instead his settings always seemed to be set to 11, accompanied by powerful imagery. It didn’t seem like there was anything ordinary about his books – he wrote about characters torturing wasps to death to predict the future, lived on never-ending bridges (erm… The Bridge), tried to buy islands on behalf of multi-national businesses (erm… The Business), and where the threat of exploding pacemakers could halt funerals (The Crow Road).
For me, he went off the boil with Dead Air – the first of his books to be published without the distinctive black and white covers which to me only seemed to add to their appeal. (Maybe that is why it wasn’t very good.) But he had a great run of books without which my life would have been a little bit more black and white.