When Iain Banks writes a Bildungsroman about a young man who returns to his small Scottish home town for a funeral, it is tempting to compare it with his masterpiece, The Crow Road. Not least that exquisite first line: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." But where his 1992 novel was a sprawling murder-mystery led by a smart-alec protagonist, Stonemouth is a more focused, studied examination of the principal figure, who is seeking, as he explains with his stark, first word, "Clarity".
If it is a less charged opening than The Crow Road's, then the characters who inhabit the titular town of this new novel are no less unstable than Prentice McHoan's eruptive nan. The northern Scottish estuary burg of Stonemouth is run, gangster-style, by two families, one of which would rather Stewart Gilmour was not back on their patch. Just what the twenty-something lighting architect has done to earn the ire of the Murston clan remains unclear for quite some time – but he has been granted temporary reprieve to attend the burial of the family patriarch, Joe.
We first encounter Gilmour as he stands on the bridge that delineates entry to the town – and from which a disturbingly large number of people have committed suicide. Or should that be "suicide"? For it soon becomes obvious that anyone who crosses either the Murstons or their rivals, the MacAvetts, is dealt with sharply. Not least Gilmour himself, who is given a going over more than once.
Banks mines the same seams of dark comedy and tense horror running throughout his oeuvre, while slowly revealing how Gilmour came to be a pariah – and how he might find his way back into the affections of his former love. It is enough to say that she herself is a disaffected Murston; to reveal more would be to take away from the joy of gradual discovery. Indeed, it is not until three-quarters of the way through the book that this love turns up. Until then, Gilmour treats us to reflections on growing up in Stonemouth, allowing Banks to generate characters with empathetic depth.
If at first the work seems starker than other Banks novels, with straightforward story-telling and plainspoken prose, then it is only in keeping with that first word: clarity. And the clarity he gives us is an overarching gospel that should be borne in mind whenever reading a first-person narrative. "I suspect we all sort of secretly think our lives are like these very long movies, with ourselves as the principal characters," notes Gilmour. "Only very occasionally does it occur to any one of us that all these supporting actors, cameo turns, bit players and extras around us might actually be in some sense real, just as real as we are, and that they might think that the Big Movie is really all about them, not us."
It is the sort of simple but profound pronouncement that, had it come from the mouth of Confucius, would be repeated in perpetuity. As it is, it is one that makes a very pleasurable read all the more satisfying.
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