The Quarry by Iain Banks: Unsettlingly true to life

Cover imageIt has been a sad and rather unsettling experience reading The Quarry. Anyone with even the most fleeting interest in the book world knows that Iain Banks died from cancer in early June, a mere few months after being diagnosed, and those who have read the reviews of his final novel know that one of its main characters has terminal cancer. The strangest thing is that when Banks began the novel he had no idea of his own condition but we readers know from page one.

Narrated by eighteen-year-old Kit, described as “socially disabled on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other”, the novel is set over a single weekend when six old friends visit Kit’s father, Guy, ostensibly to say goodbye but most of them wanting to get their hands on an old video tape from their Film and Media studies days. All deny it is a sex tape in a methinks they doth protest too much kind of way but it’s clearly incriminating. Guy strings them along until the contents of the tape are finally revealed. No one comes out of it very well: Rob and Ali, slaves to the corporate machine, are bitterly competitive beneath their lovey dovey exterior; Pris is desperate for everyone’s unlikely approval of her tabloid-reading partner; Hol’s social conscience is not so pristine as she’d like it to be; Haze is in a drug induced time warp and Paul is a corporate lawyer. Over it all presides Guy – bitter and self pitying – the antithesis of Banks himself whose interview with the BBC shortly before his death showed him to be quietly accepting.

There are plenty of Banks trademarks – black humour, political tirades and nice little digs at institutions like the Daily Mail – all wrapped up in a neat story but it lacks the brilliance of some of his previous novels. Kit’s personality works nicely as a foil for the others’ self indulgent posturing but descriptions of his obsessive compulsiveness are a little too detailed. Somewhat sentimentally, I wanted this to be my favourite Banks novel but that will remain The Crow Road which I’ve happily reread several times and I’m sure will read again. How many other contemporary novels can you say that about?

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