Reviewer: Catriona Troth
What we thought: I fell in love with Iain Banks the first time a read the opening line to his novel, Crow Road: “That was the day my grandmother exploded.”
And my heart cracked a little when I read his short, dignified announcement of his own imminent death, when he told the world he had asked his partner, “if she would do me the honour of becoming my widow.”
So it’s taken me over a year to bring myself to read his final novel, The Quarry. It is an irony that Banks himself certainly appreciated that, when he found out he was dying, he was in the midst of writing a novel about a man dying of cancer.
The story is told, not through the eyes of the dying man, Guy, but through those of his son, Kit – autistic, intelligent, almost painfully self aware, in his own words, somewhere on “a spectrum that stretches from 'highly gifted' at one end to 'nutter' at the other, both of which I am comfortable with.”
Guy and Kit live in a house that is decaying almost as fast as Guy himself, perched on the edge of the eponymous quarry and threatened with final annihilation when the digging extends onto their property.
At the start of the story Guy is gathering around him six university friends who used to share his crumbling house. At the heart of their get-together is a lost video tape. Each of the friends has a reason to want it found and destroyed – and the weekend becomes a combined house clearing and search party.
Kit is by and large an outsider in all this, navigating his way through the behaviours other humans and learning how to respond more-or-less appropriately with the support of his long-time mentor Hol. Because we see everything through Kit’s eyes, we become anthropologists, observing the strange rituals of reunion and seeing the fractures appear along the fault lines of their friendship.
According to Banks’s final interview (in the Guardian), there is one place in the book where his own illness leaks into the pages of The Quarry. He had his laptop with him on the day he received his diagnosis, and wrote the rant beginning, “I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind,” from his hospital bed. But in other ways, he had limited sympathy with Guy. "I'm not Guy,” he told his interviewer, Stuart Kelly. “He deeply resents that life will go on without him. I think that's a stupid point of view. Apart from anything else, I mean, what did you expect?"
The Quarry may not be Banks’s greatest work. (In his view, that was The Bridge. For me, it was probably Crow Road.) But it provides a fitting valediction on a career that ended far too soon.
You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Avoid if you dislike: Looking the process of dying in the eye
Perfect Accompaniment: Champagne. Or possibly a spliff.