Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Stonemouth by Iain Banks

stonemouthStonemouth is the most recent of Iain Banks’ non-Culture novels. His new book, The Quarry, also non-Culture, is due for publication this month and it will be the last. This very talented, versatile writer sadly died of cancer recently, so this is a good time to review one of his books and contemplate what we as readers have lost.

Stonemouth is similar to The Crow Road and The Steep Approach To Garbadale in that it deals with issues of family, loyalty, love and death in a Scottish context. In that sense, he sets his novels in the Scotland he knows and loves best, depicting its beauty, but also its darker side, including the impact of post-industrialism and the powerful cliques who have moved in to take advantage of it. Although this sounds depressing, it’s part of his charm as an author that he doesn’t write fiction to please the Scottish tourism industry.

His protagonist, Stewart Gilmour returns to his hometown after a five year absence in London, to attend the funeral of Joe Murston. Joe is the elderly patriarch of the Murstons, a powerful family, who derive much of their considerable wealth from crime, including drug-dealing. Fans of David Simon’s HBO drama, The Wire should not be too hasty to draw comparisons. These kingpins have the sort of power and influence the Barksdales can only dream about. They have connections within the police and judiciary and unlike the hapless D’Angelo Barksdale, will never have to worry about the knock on the door. Part of their power derives from the fact that they are seen to maintain a balance in the neighbourhood so that the law-abiding majority can go about their business in safety. Without that balance, goes the argument, much more feral elements would start to move in, the law-abiding would suffer, business and tourism would be ruined and chaos would ensue. One of the purposes of the narrative is to challenge this assumption and to lay bare the moral and personal  corrosion it causes in those who believe in it.

One of his devices for doing this is the figure of Stewart Gilmour. Stewart is the first person narrator, and his childhood memories are bound up Stonemouth, so he shouldn’t be regarded as completely reliable, but he is basically harmless, painfully clear-sighted and honest about his own failings and determined to stand up for himself and those he loves, although he knows what the consequences might be. Although he is essentially unthreatening, Stewart has earned the odium of the Murstons and he knows from their long association that they have the ferocious arrogance and taste for violence to do something about it. They know themselves to be fireproof and he is a very small fish. How and why he got himself into this situation is at the centre of the narrative and the way it is peeled back shows Banks’ strengths as a writer.

Banks’ use of flashbacks builds up the history between the characters and their families, while layering on character development and ratcheting up the tension, so that the reader’s interest in Stewart and those around him is aroused and maintained. Banks doesn’t write particularly short novels – in that sense, he is more Jane Austen than Muriel Spark – but his ability to do several things at once makes his writing brisk and economical. However, this doesn’t exclude emotion; like his earlier work, this novel is imbued with humour, sadness and warmth. Stewart is the son of very ordinary, loving people and it shows, from his love for his parents, to his adoration for the Murstons’ lovely ice-princess, Ellie. It shows too, in his response to a small girl at a wedding reception.

“Aw,” I said to Hannah. She turned away a little, but then looked back. I got a wee smile and my heart melted.’ (p205)

Stewart’s strength, his gentleness and capacity for love is also one of his greatest weaknesses. It clouds his judgment, stops him from realising how very far from general his values are and makes him vulnerable to people whose thirst for vengeance knows no limits. Through him we see the consequences of allowing untrammelled power its way, something that could easily be applied at the international level as well as on Stonemouth‘s small canvas. The outcome rarely leaves anyone untouched, something that is brought to bear on the most powerful, as well as those they persecute. Iain Banks’ wider focus and the concern he had for those suffering injustice was never far from the surface and we see it here, beautifully expressed in this apparently domestic novel.

Hatchett Digital, Little Brown. London 2012. 357pp.
also Abacus. 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0349000206. 448pp.

3 comments on “Stonemouth by Iain Banks

  1. Moira
    June 18, 2013

    A superb review, reminding us – if we needed to be reminded – of exactly what we’ve lost with the death of Iain Banks. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds as if it encapsulates his writing strengths and quirks perfectly.

    Thank you very much.

  2. Jackie
    June 18, 2013

    This is an author I haven’t read, but your review makes me think I’m missing something, so I think I’ll give him a try. Along with an intriguing book review, this post also serves as a lovely tribute to him as a writer and person.

  3. Caroline Green
    June 25, 2013

    I loved Stonemouth too. Thanks for that beautifully written review.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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