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The Crow Road: Iain Banks

by Karl Coppack
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The Crow Road review book cover
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This is about cosy reads. That sounds like a harsh term when viewed in isolation, but it’s one I like to use.

Cosy read: A book you’ve read dozens of times and can almost recite passages from or, at least, episodes. This can be a book you’ve grown up with or a recent one which demands the minimum of a second or third reading. Cosy books are comfort blankets to wrap around you at times when only familiarity can help.

I say ‘harsh’ as there can’t be many authors would want to see the result of their toil placed in a such a category, particularly when they’ve spent years writing, crafting, shaping and, most time-consuming of all, editing their tale down to perfection. No one wants their book to be ‘nice.’ Not when there are boundaries to break and glass ceilings to be smashed. Yet, here we are.

I have a few cosy books. Here’s the story of one of them.

Eighteen years ago, I took a train from London to Aberdeen to see Al, one of my oldest mates. I could have flown but I like the train and the idea of somehow covering every metre in a more trying fashion. It’s the modern version of riding on horseback rather being a passenger. A bit more worthy.

The journey was about eight hours long. The previous year it had taken me one fewer to reach New York.

Of course, I had to complete the journey in reverse a few days later so I had to plan how to fill those empty hours. I’d bought a few new books at the station to work on, but for the journey back—a tired and hungover trip—I went with comfort. A cosy read.

I re-bought The Crow Road by Iain Banks. One of my favourite books of all time.

I won’t be alone in that. It’s regarded as one of his great novels alongside his debut The Wasp Factory and tells of Prentice McHoan and his quest to find out what happened to his Uncle Rory. On his way he deals with an uncomfortable relationship with his stubborn atheist of a father (Prentice is more of an open agnostic than a believer), his unrequited love for the Helen of Troy-like Verity and a sense that he has no place to be.

Those words underplay the glory of the book. Set across many timelines you have to be on your guard to keep up as Banks tests your attention span throughout. Pretty much every character reappears in their younger incarnations.

Though it has some heavy themes, it is also tinged with a welcome humour. Young Prentice trying the Jedi mind trick on his mother, his one night stand with Rory’s ex (‘potentially fatal, potentially natal’) and one of the finest opening lines of any novel in the last half century – ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ are just some of the more memorable episodes.

But why is The Crow Road cosy?

Well, it envelops you immediately. We’ve all been Prentice McHoan. He is sympathetically naïve, both foolish and wise and, more importantly, battered around by life. What’s more, he doesn’t react well to disappointments. The lovely Verity has chosen his more successful brother, Lewis, a stand-up comedian, over himself and he takes it badly and then embarrassingly. He misses Rory, his hero of an uncle and can’t get used to the idea of him never returning. Then his relationship with his father is never reconciled when a mixture of afternoon’s drinking, bravado and even God takes him from the world. It’s another death close to him.

And speaking of death it’s his grandmother who provides the book with its title and its central theme. Whenever someone has passed, she uses the family term ‘that’s him away the Crow Road.’ It’s never explained but I’ve always took it to mean the murder of crows which gather at cemeteries, looking for freshly exposed worms in the newly dug up earth. A murder indeed.

This comes into sharp focus when Prentice comes across Rory’s antiquated floppy disks and, after having them saved from one of Ashley’s admirers (Ashley being a female friend from childhood who lost her super-cool brother Darren in a motorbike accident), he finds that Rory has been writing a book called The Crow Road.

The grandmother also tells him that she has various moles on her body that itch or tickle when a member of the family is talking about her. The one on her wrist is Rory’s mole so he asks her if it’s been active of late.

Not a sausage, for eight years

she tells him.

Clearly Rory, a travel writer rather than a novelist, was curious by death, possibly one close to him. But whom?

I’ll say no more about the plot as I implore you—absolutely implore you—to read it. I must have bought it a dozen times for friends over the years. It was my late sister’s Karen’s favourite book too, so much so that I arranged for a copy of the book to be placed in her casket in February 2018. She was more of an Ashley than most characters—fun, wise and occasionally exasperated with her closest friends/brother.

It’s Ashley who drives Prentice along while he’s mourning the loss of the heavenly Verity to his cocky brother Lewis (played by Dougray Scott in the BBC TV series). Work calls her away more than once and it’s at those times when Prentice struggles with his search and even his sense of purpose. It takes a while before he realises the true significance she holds for him.

I was nervous when the BBC broadcast its adaptation in 1996. What if they got it wrong and bastardised its beauty in the name of cheap entertainment? I needn’t have worried. It’s a wonderful piece of work with Joseph McFadden as the wide-eyed innocent Prentice, Bill Paterson as his amiable but determined father, Kenneth, and Valerie Edmond as Ashley. She IS Ashley too.

Best of all, Uncle Fergus was played by David Robb who was Germanicus in I, Claudius – my favourite Roman in one of my favourite Roman TV series. The director Gavin Millar worked on the film of Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World—a book which had an enormous impact on me as a child. It’s as if they’ve put together a cast and crew just for me.

Anyway, back to that train journey. On the return I sat in a quiet carriage and had my own table for the first few hours. At Edinburgh Waverley a couple got on with an older man and took up the three seats around me. They had suit bags, so were obviously off to a wedding. When the older man and his daughter went in search of the buffet car, the lad grabbed my arm.

Mate, you’ve got to help me. That’s my bird and her dad. He fucking hates me and we’ve got hours together on this bloody train. Do me a favour, have a drink with me. A few cans. Just talk to me. I’ll go mad otherwise.

This was far from ideal. The book was warming up nicely and I wasn’t keen on drinking with a stranger, particularly when there was an atmosphere. In fact, I wasn’t keen on drinking at all. Alasdair and I had a bit of farewell bash the night before.

I compromised and said that I would but not yet. A couple of hours later he offered me a can and I accepted. I bought some more for the table and later staggered off the train at Kings Cross with a travel tale and the thanks of a new mate. The father didn’t speak to or so much as acknowledge the lad once in all that time. Not once.

I urge you to try The Crow Road. If it’s your sort of thing move onto The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street and wonderfully comical Whit. Iain Banks died in 2013, leaving us with his final novel The Quarry.

If you’d like to investigate further there’s a Radio 4 Book Club interview with him in which he discusses The Wasp Factory and it’s hard to believe that such a dark tale should come from such a verbose and jolly man.

The Crow Road will always remind me of my sister for obvious reasons, and I’ll always love how its light never diminishes on a second and third reading. It’s just wonderful.

Almost cosy, in fact.

Find Karl Coppack on Twitter and don’t miss our interview and review of his first novel, And What Do You Do?


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