“Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.”
I held off on reading this book, for several reasons. For one, I’m meting out the last few unread Banks’ books on my shelves, saddened by the knowledge that there will be no more. And, even less happily, because I’d heard less than good things about this one, his last. Unfortunately, those things are largely true, and I was pretty disappointed with this, Banks’ last, book.
It feels incredibly mean to criticise a book like this, which was allegedly rushed out to make it into print before the author died. I’m also amazed to read that it was supposedly written before Banks received his cancer diagnosis, in which case it would be eerily precogniscent: in it, a character is facing his final days/weeks/months, slowly wasting away from the disease and losing every dignity along the way. His last times are spent ranting about the woes of the world, and it’s hard not to see those character-rants as author-rants, too, and in horribly all-too-similar circumstances.
The book describes a gathering of old university housemates around their dying friend. A less likeable bunch is hard to imagine: idealists turned yuppies (I found it hard to read these characters as 1990s students in 2013, as they were meant to be, and not from a decade or so earlier), grand visions turned to mundane existences. Two ‘McGuffins’ spice the plot: first, the hunt for a home-made video whose contents threatens the cosy little lives of all involved. Secondly, the narrator – Kit, son of the dying Guy and ‘on the spectrum’ – hopes to discover the identity of his mother. Is it one of the gathered group? And what awful secrets are on the missing tape?
The set up has promise, but sadly I felt it lived up to none of it. No spoilers to say both of the above issues are wrapped up, but with disappointing lack of ‘Ah-ha!’ feelings. Instead, we have a long weekend of this merry band drinking, doing drugs, and whining about the world, all the while revealing increasingly unlikeable aspects to their personalities.
Other than the main character, Kit, who just didn’t gel as ‘real’ or consistent in his voice, as a character study the book is actually very good, if not in an overly enjoyable way. As a story – well, not so much. Perhaps with time for another draft… but then, that in itself is a chilling take-away from the book, both in story and in reality. Urm.
On the plus side, I didn’t leave it ’til last in my reading of Banks’ books, so this doesn’t have to be my enduring memory of a body of work that has sometimes puzzled but more often amazed and entertained me.
Hardback: 326 pages / 8 chapters
First published: 2013
Read from 6th – 13th March 2016
My rating: 4/10 – not a cheery read, in any regard