Monday, 26 October 2009

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Starting, in my mind, with one of the best opening lines in contemporary literature - It was the day my Grandmother exploded - Iain Banks’ The Crow Road is the story of the McHoan family, mainly viewed through the eyes of youngest scion Prentice.

Tragedy and untimely death seem to stalk the McHoan clan; the exploding grandmother falls off a ladder in the beginning of the book, and the central story concerns the mystery of Prentice’s Uncle Rory, missing for many years.

There are glorious descriptions of alcohol throughout, and being a Scottish writer, Banks includes copious references to whisky. Flicking through the book I was spoilt for choice: In the end, I decided to pick a scene I recall very clearly from when I first read it back in 1996. Prentice has gone to a family party the day after Hogmanay, only to discover the his elder brother Lewis is now going out with Verity, the woman Prentice has lusted after from afar for years. Distinctly put out, he gets stuck into the booze:

I went through to the dining-room and helped myself to a pint of the neuron-friendly punch that Uncle Hamish always made for the event... We sipped - or in my case gulped - the weak but tasty punch, nibbled on Aunt Tone’s buffet-bits, and played Alternative Charades; an invention of my father’s in which one first has to guess the category of the thing one is being asked to decipher.

No easy task for a man who has rather rapidly got through a skinful of punch.

My last memory is of trying to mime Rare Gynaecological Disorders, preparatory to attempting Toxic Shock Syndrome. But apparently people insisted that one stand up to do one’s piece, and I - successfully acclimatised to the horizontal by this time - refused to pander to this sort of nit picking, and so passed my turn on to my Cousin Josh with as much good grace as I could muster.

Outrage is only moments away. Prentice, oblivious to the world by now, only finds out exactly what he said to his brother and his girlfriend, in front of everyone in the room, when his mother speaks to him the next day. She lets him have it chapter and verse:

I felt the blood draining from my neck like somebody had opened a valve in my ankle... “And I think we all successfully worked out what ‘doing the Delta Foxtrot’ was, as well, before you became totally incoherent.”

Prentice spends the rest of the day apologising and trying to recover with Irn Bru and spring water...


  1. This was my Wife's favourite until she read Whit & actually made a reasonable tv drama a few years back. Here's a link to Raw Spirit, if interested.

  2. I remember the dramatisation too; I think it was back in 1996. Where does the time go?

    I must read some more of his work, especially his science fiction, of which I have read only one, but enjoyed it immensely.