Friday, April 18, 2008

book review - The Steep Approach to Garbadale

The Steep Approach To Garbadale is the first Iain Banks I have read for a while. The blurb on the dust jacket would lead you to believe it is one of the finest things he has ever written.

Things start badly with some Scottish stereotypes of the Irving Welsh variety living in a council flat drinking and drugging and not contributing much to anyone. But entering their world is a smart executive who is searching for his cousin – Alban – to take him home to vote against a takeover of the family firm and mark the occasion of his grandmother’s 80th birthday.

As a result of that opening you are left with several questions. First is the question of Alban and that is quickly followed by trying to work out who is family is. These two questions keep the book going through its 300 plus pages. The way the story is told is through a series of flashbacks, which come without any warning and end just as quickly.

The result of the flashback technique is that this becomes almost a series of images going back and forth with the reader advancing occasionally but more often than not having to go back even further to get the context for the Alban situation. In some senses the impact is probably how it feels to be playing a game of snakes and ladders with the forward and backwards taking players in random directions.

But as well as putting the relationships between Alban and the family firm and his grandmother into some context there are two main story lines running through the book. The first is mainly told in flashbacks with the growth of the love between Alban and his cousin Sophie. They are finally split apart by the grandmother. But he still holds a torch for her and will the big family get together be a chance to rekindle old flames?

Secondly Alban’s mother killed herself when he was not much more than a babe in arms and one of the aunts implies that there was some pressure on her to lose the baby and that drove her to suicide. Again will the big birthday bash with all of the family gathered together be the chance to solve that mystery?

Without giving the ending away the final few chapters of the book do deliver a result on both counts but in a typical Banks way. No penis in jars moments but something equally as dark. The idea seems to be that lurking inside every family is some horrible sort of secret. That darkness does make the last few chapters grab you but it is after a long battle with the flashback mechanism. Possibly alternate chapters might have been a better way of driving the plot forward rather than the headache inducing backwards and forwards here.

It is still going to be hard for Banks to beat The Crow Road if he is looking for a family epic with dark secrets and destructive passions. But this is not that bad a read either. Losing the bookends of the Scottish drunks would have made it even better.

Version read – Abacus paperback

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