Spurred on by Stonemouth, which I recently reviewed, I was tempted by another Iain Banks, and from my remaindered bookshop in Totnes I chose A Song of Stone.
Banks is a very talented writer. He begins this story in a false lyrical style – overblown and poetic – a first person narrative that verges on beauty, but tips into melodrama, cliche and hyperbole. This is the dominant voice of the narrative, but Banks introduces other conversational voices, such as the faithful old retainer. These speak in more muted, colloquial language and engage us as real and more humane characters because of that.
From the beginning the first person voice is at once beguiling and enervating. I was holding my judgement. Banks reveals all in a series of reminiscences which explore the possibly incestuous, and certainly narcissistic nature of the narrator’s marital relationship, and show the cruel and insensitive way the narrator treats his wife. Black haired, beautiful and almost mute throughout, she is far from a heroic figure, compromised in the early chapters by her collaboration and, possibly, by a lesbian affair, with the Lieutenant of a band of guerrilla raiders in this post-apocalyptic landscape.
This is an adventure story full of sex and violence that would appeal to someone fascinated by human behaviour at the edge of civilisation. It’s a book for grown up teenage boys with an appetite for excitement and melodrama. There are deeper themes – the narrator is a fascinating mixture of linguistic dexterity and moral vacuity, and could stand for the English Upper Classes – this is intimated throughout, though never asserted. Banks seems to stand here, in his wild Scottishness, outside of all moral conventions, lifting up the carpet to reveal the carapaces of the crawling masses beneath.