Stonemouth by Iain Banks
That would have been good.
Instead, a cold clinging mist. Not even mist; just a chill haze, drifting up the estuary. I’m standing fifty metres above the Firth of Stoun, in the middle of the road bridge, at the summit of the long, shallow trajectory it describes above the waters.
A man stands on a bridge. A notorious “suicide” spot, he knows some who’ve died there. Stewart Gilmour however, is waiting for someone, waiting to get permission to come back to the town he left five years ago – then, it was a case of leave or die.
It’s an atmospheric beginning that sets the tone perfectly. Right from the off, we’re longing to know why Stewart Gilmour was run out of toun – and why he’s come back.
We’re sitting in Powell’s black Range Rover Sport in the viewing area near the bridge control centre. My more modest hired Ford Ka is a couple of bays away. For some reason when we arranged out arguably melodramatic meeting in the middle of the bridge, I’d thought he would part at the north end and walk over while I did the same from the south, but he must have driven past me and parked here. Obviously hasn’t watched the same old Cold War movies I have.
Gilmour is back for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, patriarch of one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families, the two had been close when Stewart was young, despite Stewart’s family working for the MacAvetts. Gilmour, it seems, is a bit of a bridge between the two. He gets his temporary truce to come home for the long weekend, but is reminded he mustn’t outstay his welcome.
Having lived in London for five years with all the trappings of a good job and lifestyle, Stonemouth doesn’t appear to have changed which is reassuring, slightly surreal and sad at the same time. Some of Stewart’s friends never left either; Ferg did, but he’s back too and the pair, reunited, go out to get drunk – which sets the pattern for most of the weekend.
Divided into five daily sections, starting on Friday with the funeral on the Monday, Stewart narrates his story. As he goes around over the weekend, renewing some connections, steering clear of others, he reminisces with us about his teenage years, meeting and walking with Murston-pere, an assortment of character-forming tragedies, and … meeting Ellie Murston, the love of his life… and the reason for his exile.
Despite the truce for the funeral, this homecoming reunion of friends and enemies is always going to be a simmering stew of tension, old resentments and feuds. The younger scions of the Murston clan are not as tolerant as their father, and they’re naturally very protective of their sister Ellie. Stewart finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his distance, especially once Ellie take the initiative to talk to him. I won’t tell you how it goes, you can read or imagine that for yourselves.
It would be fair to say that there is more than a hint of Romeo and Juliet, or rather Capulets vs Montagues, in the central family drama and love story, for despite it being ostensibly a thrillerish gangster drama with a nod to the film Get Carter in its underlying violence and homecoming theme, it is really a romance at heart.
Stewart is an interesting character. Although he slips back into the boozy culture of his old cohorts and haunts easily, he has grown-up during his five years away. He is still seeking ‘Clarity‘ though, he hopes, indeed he needs to find out where he stands with Ellie.
Stewart’s pals and contemporaries provide much of the humour in the novel. Ferg is f***ing hilarious in particular. The guys’ language is coarse and punchy, argumentative, their body-language physical; fuelled by drink and drugs, they party hard, but none want to fight with the Murstons. The dialogue, the craic, is cracking.
Seemingly at odds with its characters are Banks’ descriptions of the landscape around Stonemouth: the beach has a stark beauty you can imagine when the sun comes out on a misty morning. At other times though, together with the bridge and forest beyond, it marks a boundary – holding the town within. Yet Banks can’t quite resist occasionally putting some humour into his descriptions – as in this sentence of musing from Stewart:
Quietly pissed, but feeling like a child again, I watched through the side window of the Audi as a waning moon like a paring from God’s big toenail flickered between the black trunks of sentry trees ridging lines of distant hills.
How’s that for imagery!
This seemingly straight-forward novel is not without layers of complexity. Our narrator is a man who is trying to work out his place in the world, and the Murston family dynamics are more than a little complicated, as is this small town which has been held in stasis by its ruling clans with their fingers in every pie. Banks also managed to end it in a way that worked believably – I was convinced. Times are changing, and Stonemouth must change too. (9/10)
I will be adding this novel to my ‘BanksRead’ tab above. It’s the first novel in my project to read and re-read the novels of one of my favourite authors. I shall also be discussing it further at the BanksRead Forum.
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Own hardback from the TBR Stonemouth by Iain Banks, Abacus paperback, 448 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)