Still shocking after all these years …

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now. But better late than never, I have returned to the beginning and re-read The Wasp Factory again, and updated my BanksRead page.

Published in 1984, I read it for the first time in 1985 when the paperback first came out. I read it again back then too, and I still have my original paperback.  The monochrome cover with its squared symbols and numerals, and the embossed title and author name really stood out then, and does now.

Banks has always been brilliant at beginnings,  and the first lines of his first novel are cracking.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager who lives on an island with his abandoned father. Frank is rather fond of catching the local wildlife, and killing it to display on his totemic poles. Animals are not the only things Frank kills though…

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

For those that haven’t read this book, I’m not giving things away with the above quote. It’s part of the back cover blurb of my original copy and comes at the end of chapter two. However, by then Frank has told us quite a lot about his family history, how he became a murderer, and we know about his ‘accident’. His certified brother Eric is at large, and on his way home, which is a cause for concern for everyone except Frank, who although he loves his brother thinks he may rather cramp his style. He finds solace in a boozer in town with his only friend, Jamie, a dwarf, but I can tell you no more about the plot.

When I first read this novel, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me.  It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it. Between Frank’s cruel experiments, Eric’s deranged rantings on the phone, and the father’s secretive behaviour, it’s clear that what is left of this family have real problems.

Banks’ prose still has the power to shock, even knowing what was to come.  This is definitely still not a book for the squeamish.  I could pick up on more clues in his Gothic coming of age story this time. I also saw parallels between Frank and the horrorshow of Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orangeboth vicious adolescents growing up; and also with Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – another flawed young person who uses her own version of sacrifice poles to warn off intruders onto the family estate.

It feels as if Banks arrived on the scene as a fully fledged author with The Wasp Factory.  He’s taken it from there with each subsequent novel, always experimenting, always having a strong vision, and keeping that sense of humour underneath.  Still 10/10.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Futura paperback, 256 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

11 thoughts on “Still shocking after all these years …

  1. sakura says:

    I remember reading this at university and was equally stunned but also disturbed and a little grossed out. I haven’t revisited the book but have never forgotten the story. I love his Culture novels and have several on my shelves which I’ve been meaning to read.

    • gaskella says:

      It’s certainly still disturbing, and there are a couple of parts that are just plain gross (but which explain a lot), but it was just as stunning to re-read again. I’m not sure whether to read a Culture novel next or a mainstream one.

  2. ChildLedChaos says:

    It’s nice to hear that it still has the impact on re-reading. I first read it at some point mid-nineties I think so it was well established but fortunately I knew nothing about it so was left feeling quite stunned after finishing. I want to read it again now!

    • gaskella says:

      If you do re-read, I hope you find it still delivers as I did. I was able to concentrate more on his wonderful prose this time, and think about influences etc. (but the gross bits were still gross!).

  3. sharkell says:

    Just got around to reading this after your recommendation. I wondered what I had got myself into in the first half of the book, but then it really takes you over and you start to really enjoy it once you have got used to Frank Such an interesting story, and a great imagination. I’m hoping to read more of Banks. Thanks for your recommendation.

    • gaskella says:

      I’m so glad you weren’t scared off – the grossness (esp what happened to Eric) requires steely nerve at times, but this book was/is so different – a real trailblazer.

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