Barbaric castle

A SONG OF STONE by Iain Banks Abacus pounds 16.99

Like The Bridge and Walking On Glass, Iain Banks's new novel is a crossover between Gormenghastian fantasy and realism. In a nameless country in the Hobbesian aftermath of a ruinous war, Abel and his lover, Morgan, have decided to abandon their ancestral home and take their chances on the road. What the war was about we never find out. The inhabitants of the castle have been able to bury their heads in the sand, and it is only now that the war is over that dangers threaten, in the form of gangs of rootless soldiers who wander the countryside, looting and fighting. Abel's journey is frustrated by such a group, led by a woman Lieutenant who turns them back to the castle and commandeers it.

The realisation of an imagined landscape is one of Banks's fortes; he goes to town with this one. The sense of place and circumstance is extraordinarily vivid; Banks never actually says that this is not Somewhere In Hampshire, but in the juxtaposition of modern vehicles and soldiers and an Edwardian social structure in the castle, where Abel and Morgan have inherited servants with their status, it is clear that Banks has nudged his world sideways into a dimension just next door to this one. Banks first thought of himself as a science-fiction writer. Perhaps this is the reason that he is so unafraid of big, splashy effects - big-scale, muscular imagery, grand symbols, blizzards of similes ("We weave through their lifeless desolation like a needle through a frayed tapestry of ruin") - and of narrative devices which, in hands less sure, would tend to look like an exercise in Creative Writing. The narration is in the present tense and in the first person addressed to a second. Abel is telling the story to Morgan in his mind, remembering the past and their shared childhood, and trying to explain to her and to himself this Lieutenant woman who effortlessly takes from him everything he values.

There is a chapter in A Song Of Stone in which Abel finds himself alone, rattling around in his ruined castle, constrained by the Lieutenant's superior will-power. But his thoughts run free - to the past, to the future, to his lover out there in the dangerous world (the Lieutenant has commandeered Morgan as well). A man alone in a castle, impotent and brooding: this is very much Banks territory.

Once the Lieutenant and her men are installed in the castle, Abel gets an education in a reality he already guesses at, that in a conflict between civilisation and savagery, savagery gets to choose the weapons. Abel's civilisation is anyway dissolute. His erotic liaison with Morgan is delinquent, perhaps even incestuous. The vandalism which the soldiers inflict on his home is connected with the flouting of rules, and Abel believes that the spirit of degeneracy which he and Morgan have represented was responsible for the war. At any rate, he has forfeited the right to oppose the forces of chaos. Although he is appalled by it, Abel feels a guilty thrill in the destruction of his home, and he is painfully complicit in the Lieutenant's theft of Morgan.

After the relative gentleness of Whit, this is a return to Banks's speciality: tour de force writing about violence and degradation. A Net-surfer on an Iain Banks Web site once wondered whether the next book would be one of Banks's pitiless numbers in which only one character is left alive at the end. "They're not all like that," came the response. "Sometimes everybody dies."

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