BOOK REVIEW / Motorway madness: 'The Crow Road' - Iain Banks: Scribners, 15.99 pounds

Share
Related Topics
IAIN BANK's new novel, The Crow Road, is an endlessly frustrated detective story. Along a path of ultimately misleading clues, the plot strews more signposts than you see on spaghetti junction. Is the man in the German Jacuzzi genuine? Who is sending home the mysterious matchboxes? You will probably take your wildest wrong turning, though, when you reach page 126, where Banks unpacks the mystery of the novel's title.

The narrator, Prentice McHoan - a young Scottish youth on the trail of love, life and a missing relative - has gone to meet an important witness. In the course of the encounter he asks a woman if she has ever heard Grandma Margo use the saying: ' 'Away the Crow Road' . . . It meant dying; being dead. 'Aye, he's away the crow road,' meant 'He's dead.' '

So is that what it's all about, this rambling Scottish saga of young men and their fathers, of disaffection and affection? Is it about confronting eternal darkness, pondering the great unknown? This may be true up to a point, but it doesn't really get to the book's heart. The emphasis falls less frequently on the mystical 'Crow Road' than it does on the altogether less mystical dual carriageway between Dumbarton and Alexandria. Or on the Glasgow road, for that matter. Or the motorway to London. Prentice may flirt with grief and girls, but he - and Iain Banks with him - has fallen completely for cars.

This is a long book and a tangled one, with a disjointed time scheme. It makes unexpected gear-changes and takes on board the occasional backseat driver (Prentice's father takes over the narrative from time to time). What is consistent in it, though, is provided by the smell of burning rubber. Most of the major events occur in or around a motorised vehicle.

Take the romantic interest: Verity, the love of Prentice's life, was born in her parents Rover 3.5, seduces his brother on the top of a Range Rover and goes off with him in a soft-top XR3i.

Or take the detective-story thread: Prentice's search for his peripatetic uncle is punctuated by a series of crashes - the school friend who collides with a cement rubbish bin, the aunt who dies on the drive home from a party, the family doctor who skids his green Rover 216 into the Urvill's Bentley Eight (an incident of particular note to Prentice: ' 'I thought he had an Orion,' I said').

You can even chart Prentice's emotional development by his relationship with various sets of wheels. There's the 'steady, growling' family Volvo of his childhood; the Lagonda Rapide Saloon, tarpaulined in his grandmother's garage, in which he lost his virginity ('the cracked and creaking, buttoned and fragrant upholstery . . .'); his best friend's 'battered, motley-panelled 2CV'), the sensible VW Golf he buys after the death of his father; and the burgundy Bentley Eight, 'showroom- clean, unlived in'. He has inherited it in a terrible practical joke, and decides that it 'wasn't really me'.

Does all this drive you mad? It seems almost fetishistic, this detailed obsession with traffic, and the insistence on marques and models is irritating when it distracts from the thrust of the plot. But it is typical of the narrator. Prentice's late-teenage mind is filled with Lloyd Cole and girls' perfume, with memories of The Clangers, with drink and cigarettes and being rude in Indian restaurants. He never quite gets round to ringing his parents (his row with his father runs through the book); and he doesn't notice romantic attachment tangling under his nose. He's self-obsessed and selfish, and sometimes charming. Yet he is the only character in The Crow Road who has weight behind him; the others border on cliche - the cranky grandmother, the patient mother, the wicked uncle.

With The Crow Road, Banks is clearly keen to turn away from the sharp violence of his earlier novels and spend time with one person. To an extent he succeeds. The Crow Road is tight with detail and close observation and creates a strong sense of a particular period of growing up. It is a shame Banks cannot leave it at that. But at the end, although the novel's mystery is by this stage crying out to be left unsolved, he draws together Prentice's disparate experiences in a hefty, melodramatic conclusion. As Prentice could have told him, to travel is generally better than to arrive.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game