The Crow Road by Iain Banks begins with the memorable line "It was the day my grandmother exploded." This line is, in fact, a good indication of the rest of the novel. This novel is full of similarly pithy one-liners and hooks (another good example being the start of chapter five: "Right, now this isn't as bad as it sounds, but...I was in bed with my Aunty Janice.") but unfortunately aside from amusing me with the occasional one-liner the book didn't do much for me.
At first, due to the vertiginous style of narrative and its constant switches in time and focus it is hard to pin point any one main character or plot except that all the vignettes center around one family. With time, however, it becomes apparent that novel is following a main character, Prentice, through a fairly linear plot with the rest being flashbacks and the like to relevant scenes in the history of his family, whose sordid past he uncovers throughout the novel.
The history of the family seems to be more eventful than the average one, but not to an unrealistic degree. The novel begins at Prentice's Grandmother's funeral where we meet the family. In order of appearance, more or less, they are Uncle Hamish, who is possessed of several peculiar ideas about religion and how one's life is tallied up after death; Prentice's father Kenneth, a devout atheist who Prentice is currently not speaking to over religious differences; Prentice's little brother James, who spends most of the novel in Australia and doesn't appear to do much worth mentioning in the novel other than being moody and listening to his Walkman; Prentice's mother Mary, who is generally warm and loving and motherly; Aunt Ilsa the world traveler, Uncle Rory who rode off on a stolen motorcycle years ago and hasn't been heard from since, Prentice's older, and if you ask Prentice smarter, funnier, and all-around better, brother Lewis; Uncle Fergus, the widow of Prentice's Aunt Fiona and father of twins, he is also the richest and most powerful man in town and the uncle of Verity whose beauty is matched only by her poor taste in men and who has won Prentice's heart. Last but not least I'd be remiss if I did not mention Ashley, who is not a member of the family, but is rather a family friend. Prentice didn't get along with her much during school and in fact broke her nose with a snowball containing a rock. Despite this fact she spends a fair amount of time in the novel taking care of him while he blubbers drunkenly.
All of these people and more populate the novel following a rather predictable path based on the introductions given at the beginning of the novel. I don't recall being surprised by any incident in the novel, which is saying something for a novel that mostly just bounces from incident to incident. A large number of said incidents seem to involve sex or large amounts of alcohol, or both. At what might be called the climax of the book (pun totally intended) a very controlled movement of certain muscles in a pulse-like fashion leads to one character confessing their love to another in Morse code.
Overall the novelty of the bizarre incidents and one-liners wore off pretty quickly and I didn't find anything particularly deep to sink my teeth into. The only part of the book that was even remotely challenging was the non-linear plot structure, but after latching onto the one main through line even that was relatively easy to deal with. There were a couple interesting bits contemplating religion or death, but overall nothing that I haven't seen said before and said better. When I finished the novel there wasn't any issue that I was left pondering or anything at all that really stayed with me. The main thought that went through my head at the end was a vague feeling of disappointment that it ended in more or less exactly the way I had predicted at the beginning.
To be fair I'm not a fan of strictly realistic fiction. A second fact that might bias me against the book is that it contains a lot of contemplation on religion and despite the fact that it is of a mostly atheistic bent I just don't find religion to be quite as interesting a subject for infinite contemplation as most people seem to. With those disclaimers in mind I'd give the book three stars out of five.
People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots, they can be politicians and idiots…in fact I think they have to be…a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement. Iain Banks, The Crow Road
“Fairness is something we made up,” he said. “It’s an idea. The universe isn’t fair or unfair; it works by mathematics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry…Things happen; it takes a mind to come along and call them fair or not.” Iain Banks, The Crow Road
“Prentice, have you been reading crime novels instead of your history books?”
I gave a small laugh. “No. The worst crimes are always in the history books, anyway.” Iain Banks, The Crow Road