Stonemouth was the penultimate novel written by Iain Banks before he sadly passed away in 2013. He also published sci-fi under the name of Iain M. Banks to differentiate between those and his more ‘mainstream’ books. This was the fourth book of his that I’ve read, although I have a few more as I think he’s quite an intriguing author so I always pick up copies of his mainstream books when I see them in good condition second hand. (I buy a lot of my books in charity shops).
I’m drawn to Iain Banks’ novels because they’re generally a bit weird, and quite dark in places. I find them really fascinating. His most well-known novel is probably The Wasp Factory which is the kind of book that people either love or hate, but I thought it was really clever and thought provoking. Stonemouth follows more in the vein of The Crow Road in the sense that it’s a small town drama with an element of mystery to it. (The Crow Road was one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog, so I’ll warn you now that it’s probably a terrible review!).
Stonemouth is the story of Stuart Gilmour, who returns to his hometown of Stonemouth to attend the funeral of Joe Murston. It’s the first time he’s returned home in five years. Stuart always got on well with Joe, but the Murstons rule Stonemouth with a pretty violent, heavy fist, and Stuart had to flee after the family discovered he had cheated on his fiancée Ellie Murston shortly before they were due to get married. One of Ellie’s brothers, Callum, has died in the meantime, but no one can quite make up their mind whether it was suicide or murder.
I did really enjoy reading Stonemouth, but it sort of veered off in a different direction to the one I was hoping for. I was intrigued by Callum’s death, and that was the mystery I primarily wanted the novel to focus on, however it sort of became a mystery about whether Stuart’s infidelity was a set-up and who was responsible for sabotaging his relationship with Ellie. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter if it was a set-up. At the end of the day, Stuart still cheated on Ellie, and he only has himself to blame for that. Even if someone else had been involved in filming and displaying the evidence, they wouldn’t have had anything to film if he hadn’t dropped his pants in the first place. I was less bothered about the romance aspect of the story, and (as always) more concerned with the murder and gang politics of the Murston clan.
Despite this, it was still a fairly fast-paced read, and there were some sections that were completely gripping. I felt both horrified and gleeful to read about what had happened to Wee Malky (which probably says quite a lot about me!). It was horrendous, but the imagination behind it and the fact that it kind of came out of nowhere was so pleasing for me as a reader. I remember reading it on my lunch break and immediately telling everyone at work all the grisly details of what had happened. The ending also had me hooked, although I thought it was more than slightly ridiculous at the same time. I didn’t expect what happened and I liked that I was being kept on my toes, but it was pretty far-fetched even though it was entertaining. I feel like there was a fair amount in the book that was unbelievable, but it didn’t really bother me when I was reading it because the story telling enabled me to suspend my disbelief. That’s not to say that the story telling was perfect though. There was quite a lot of telling rather than showing, which meant there were a fair few info dumps dotted about throughout. I did really like a lot of Iain Banks’ description, but I felt there was just too much of it and it did slow the story down for me in places. There weren’t a lot of ‘action’ scenes as such, but the few that were included were really fast paced and well done, and they were definitely the most memorable parts of the book for me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get the image of Wee Malky out of my head!
Some of the characters worked better for me than others. I was pretty frustrated with Stuart because there’s only so much feeling sorry for yourself I can put up with when the person in question is entirely to blame. I had a real soft spot for his best friend Fergus though, who was just great fun and provided a lot of comic relief as well as the occasional pearl of wisdom. I thought Don Murston was suitably sinister and teasingly unhinged, but I felt like the Murston brothers could have done with a bit more development as characters. They played the role of thugs perfectly, but I felt that there should have been more to their characters than just beating people up, and it just seemed like their motivation was a bit too obvious and one-dimensional.
I haven’t tried reading any of Iain Banks’ sci-fi novels because it’s not really my genre, but I’ve enjoyed all of the other novels I’ve read and I’m looking forward to reading more in the future. As I said in my review of The Crow Road, I always find myself reading his books in a distinctly Scottish accent in my head. I always like the small-town Scottish settings he favours, and Stonemouth was no different. In a way it felt very much like my own hometown, where you can move away for a few years or go to university but when you come back you’ll see all the same faces in all the same pubs. Everyone knows everything that everyone else has been up to, and it’s as if nothing has changed in the whole time you’ve been away. In a way I think that’s what helped to make Stonemouth so quietly sinister, because it felt like it could have been set in any town (or in my town), which means that the rival family gangs could easily be present in any town. I will admit that the presence of one, let alone two, gangster families who have managed to come to some kind of deal with the police and effectively rule in such a small and very local feeling Scottish town was one of the aspects which I found to be completely unbelievable, but it’s a fun idea (as much as you can say that about gangster families) so I was happy to go along with it. I don’t read books by Iain Banks to get a reflection of my own reality. I read them to laugh about dead grandmothers blowing up or to be creeped out by psychological tricks and experiments, and in terms of entertainment he hasn’t disappointed me yet.