‘Fuck me, a bit of fucking ambition here, for the love of fuck.’
Everyone has places they fear going back to. Maybe it’s because of embarrassing memories that more easily float into your consciousness there. Maybe it’s because you’re terrified of bumping into someone from the past. Maybe it’s because you hate to remember what you were when you were there.
For Stewart Gilmour, the protagonist of Iain Banks’ fourteenth non-sci-fi novel, it is option D: all of the above. He’s returning to Stonemouth, the Scottish town in which he grew up, to pay his respects to Grandfather Murston; the aged patriarch of one of two local crime families that Stewart had a strong friendship with. He has a pass to come back for the funeral from the current leader of the Murston clan, the same man that chased him out of town five years ago.
Stewart’s transgression unfolds excellently; that it isn’t immediately stated really wound me up. Dispersed a word at a time it seems, until you have the full picture, it really works to make you question what you’re reading, and also think up all possible monstrosities Stewart might have committed.
Mixed into all this is Banks’ trademark Scottish dialogue, which always manages to avoid being trite and perfectly captures slightly pissed-up mates talking rubbish in pubs. A bisexual friend, Ferg, is bitingly funny while avoiding camp clichés. In a moment of meta-observation, Stewart speaks of realising that everyone around you is the lead character in his or her own story, not just a bit-part in yours. Within the world of Stonemouth it’s absolutely believable that each character is a lead, with their own hopes, dreams, and most importantly, disappointments.
In a way, Stonemouth is a coming-of-age novel where the coming-of-age has happened off-screen. In the five years that have passed since Stewart Gilmour was last in Stonemouth he’s changed, and it’s his realisation of change that really leads his story. Gangster in-fighting and dueling houses might sound like it would have hints of Romeo & Juliet, but it’s denser than that, more complex. I was pleasantly surprised to find no overly sweet moment. Nothing felt forced. These are living, breathing characters that Banks seems to have followed around for a while writing down what actually happened.
With living descriptions of the Scottish landscape and brilliant adolescent tales of shitting into golf course holes, this isn’t the bloody shock of The Wasp Factory or Complicity. It satisfies the reader’s emotions without patronizing – often a mean feat when love is involved. For others it may well mean something completely different, but for me this is a story about mid-twenties compromise. And, most importantly, telling it to fuck off.