Little, Brown, 2012, 357 p.
Stewart Gilmour returns to his hometown, Stonemouth, somewhere in North East Scotland, to attend a funeral after a five year absence occasioned by two-timing his fiancée, Ellie, the daughter of a prominent local crime boss. The tone is set from the first as he awaits a hard man on the parapet of the suspension bridge that looms large over the town to check his reappearance will not be too unwelome. The subsequent reassumption of old friendships and acquaintances reads true – especially with Gilmour’s once best friend Ferg – as does the evocation of the claustrophobia of life in small to medium sized towns but perhaps less convincing are the threads where Gilmour seeks to unravel the circumstances surrounding the revelation of his dalliance with the “delightful Anjelica” which caused him to flee to London five years before and the fall from the bridge of Ellie’s brother which took place in the interim.
The ongoing narrative is structured over the weekend leading up to the funeral but is interspersed with Gilmour’s memories of earlier times. At one point he reflects on the delights or otherwise of the Scottish wedding reception, with its exhausting and interminable Scottish Country Dances (though the narrative renders the exuberant vocalisation that never fails to accompany these as “yee-hoooch” when it’s actually more like “hee-yeugh.”) There is also a musing on the process by which the world came to be dominated by the values of money and big business and a critique on the sort of selfishness advocated by Ayn Rand.
Though there are moments of light-heartedness and a couple of good jokes the sense of menace is never far away and the story unrolls steadily towards the violent dénouement demanded by the set up and treatment. And it is, after all, a Banks novel: a fact of which the reader is always conscious. Echoes of The Crow Road, Complicity, Whit and The Steep Approach to Garbadale are never far away. And Banks did allow one of his characters to say, “Amn’t I?” (Hurray.)
Stonemouth is accomplished and very readable. Most of the characters (hard men and gangsters apart) are engaging, if sometimes annoying, and pleasingly complex.