Thursday, March 29, 2007

Iain Banks Sphere NZ$37.00

Iain Banks is rated as one of the great contemporary British writers. He is 53 years of age but has a raft of books to his credit. He writes literary fiction, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale fits into that category, it is his 12th literary fiction novel, and then he writes Science Fiction under the name Iain M. Banks and he has 9 books published in this genre, 6 of which deal with a vast interstellar civilization, the Culture, which I gather has a huge following although not being a sci fi reader I can’t comment on that.
He has also written a work of non-fiction, Raw Spirit, a travelogue of Scotland and its whiskey distilleries.

So he is prolific, accomplished and well-regarded in literary circles.

The central character of this new book is 35 year old Alban McGill. He belongs to the very wealthy Wopuld family who have made a fortune over several generations as the manufacturers of the UK’s best-selling board game, Empire.

He has severed all links with his extensive and wealthy family but as the novel opens he has been tracked down by his cousin Feilding in Perth, (Perth Scotland I hasten to add not Perth, Australia). Feilding informs him that the family firm is the subject of an unwelcome takeover bid from an American firm and persuades him to return to the family fold and help him fight the sale of the company.

We then have a series of flashbacks between Alban’s life as a child and teenager growing up in both Scotland and England and the present – we learn of his thwarted teenage love affair with his beautiful cousin Sophie, which he has never really got over, the mysterious suicide by drowning of his mother. The description of that suicide by the way is superbly written and is Iain Banks at his very best.

Banks also provides Alban with an opportunity to tell the Americans just what he thinks of their government’s foreign policy. Near the end of the novel while attending a meeting which is to decide whether or not to sell he tells them that “the USA is a great country full of great people. It’s just their propensity as a whole for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the utmost depravity.” He also has a go at their support of President Musharaff in Pakistan.

One has to remember that in 2004 Banks was one of a group of politicians and prominent media figures in the UK that tried to have Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
He subsequently cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. He has given his protagonist Alban in The Steep Approach to Garbadale the same sort of political beliefs.

For me this novel is something of a curate’s egg – there is some great characterization, especially of Alban’s great aunts and grandmother, occasional flashes of the pub humour for which he is famous, and there is the stunning first person suicide account but there are also places where the story rambles off on tangents and several times I found my mind wandering away from the book, and then there is the tendency for speechifying, there are two pages of his tirade against US imperialism. In the end the central figure of Alban, although affable and appealing is somewhat unconvincing.
The novel is 400 pages, a big read and in the end I was glad to finish it so I could start on something else.
Photo of Iain Banks by Neil Hanna for Scotland on Sunday.
Iain Banks has an extensive website which can be found via this link.
I reviewed this book today for Radio New Zealand National.

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