The Crow Road by Iain Banks
Prentice McHoan has returned home to Gallanach from his University in Glasgow to attend the funeral of his grandmother. While home among his family, Prentice begins to have thoughts of his long absent uncle Rory. Rory was a man filled with wanderlust, and experienced some success as a travel writer, but mysteriously disappeared eight years ago. Prentice's father has hinted at the idea that Rory is still alive out there somewhere, but where exactly, no one seems to know. Later, while attending his brother's stand comedy show Prentice runs into Janice, Rory's ex-girlfriend. Janice is in possession of some of Rory's odd notes and writings and she passes them on to Prentice. The writings are written in a tough to decipher shorthand, but they are tantalizing nonetheless, as they point to more than one family secret, and may hold the answer to Rory's disappearance. Aided by his curiosity, and lots of whiskey, Prentice sets out find some answers.
The Crow Road was tough for me to get into. Banks' writing is good enough, but story jumped around a lot; initially alternating from one chapter in first person narrative form, from Prentice's point of view, to a chapter that took place in the past, written in third person. This was initially a bit annoying, because it was hard to parcel out time and place in the third person chapters, but once I got into the flow of the book this problem went away. Another thing that slowed me down was nailing down the cast of characters. There are a lot of family members who play a part, and figuring out who was who and from which generation proved to be a challenge. Once again though, this problem disappeared as I read more, thanks to Banks' strong characterizations.
The main character, Prentice, is a likable guy. His character was easily recognizable as a fairly typical college aged guy, complete with the kind of drama in his life you might expect from someone his age...he's in love with a girl who he can't have, he is best friends with the girl he should be in love with, and he and his father don't speak, due to a falling out over their spiritual beliefs. At the beginning of the story, Banks puts Prentice through the ringer, and just when things cant possibly get worse - they do...but then things get better, much better, and Prentice begins to thrive. I felt like this was an uncommon sequence of progression for a main character, but was necessary given the story, as Prentice in his lowest moments would never have even been able to start investigating Rory's disappearance in the state he was in.
The Crow Road started akin to other family dramas like The Brothers K and East of Eden, which I enjoyed, but then turned into more of a typical mystery novel. While this wasn't a bad thing, I felt like it wasn't what I expected, given the early events of the novel. Banks is a skillful writer though and I enjoyed this novel. I got pretty attached to Prentice, and I found myself really pulling for him, in all aspects of his life. Seeing where Prentice's path leads him is one of the great joys of this book. Though things wrap up almost too nicely. Maybe Banks got as attached to Prentice as I did.
I wouldn't rate it as strongly as The Wasp Factory (one of my top five novels from '09), but I still thought this was a good novel. Banks seems to excel no matter what he writes, be it science fiction or literature, as everything I've read by him has been a hit with me. The Crow Road is a solid novel, even though I had a few gripes, there is a lot to like as well. Bank's is a skilled writer, and one who seems to be a bit of an unknown here in the U.S. If you haven't read him, start with Use of Weapons for sci-fi kicks, or The Wasp Factory, and enjoy.