I love books that throw you in at the deep end and force you to kick your way to the surface. Take The Wasp Factory‘s opening lines:
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.”
Reader, are you floundering? Absolutely. And Iain Banks doesn’t stop the narrative to explain – instead the first person narrator, Frank Cauldhame, gradually feeds you more information and you grope your way into his repulsively believable world. I think this is a sign of a really good writer – one who has the confidence to keep going without explaining himself, and who doesn’t lose the reader on the way. Banks doesn’t hold the reader’s hand; he seizes it.
Frank Cauldhame is sixteen years old and has already killed three people (in my opinion the most horrifying murder is that of his cousin Esmeralda). His “greatest enemies are women and the sea”. His brother, Eric, has escaped from an insane asylum, where he was sent after witnessing a(nother) mind-blowingly awful death. And there’s a life-changing secret locked in his father’s study.
Frank’s is the narrative voice throughout, and he is a complex and well-drawn character. The Wasp Factory (I was dying for a description of it for ages – be patient, it’s brilliant), and the rest of the occult rituals he has developed from living on a remote island, beautifully demonstrate the machinations of his disturbed mind. Even the way he washes and dresses (at the start of chapter 3) has a ritualistic quality.
But he’s not an erratic character – quite the opposite. He is calm, calculating and gently sinister to read. This is best shown by his reaction to death. He separates himself into two parts: putting on a show for the benefit of others, whilst seemingly watching himself from a comfortable distance.
“The death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable.”
This is a brilliantly squeamish book, with a healthy dose of unexpected plot twists. It lures you into a place that is both uncomfortable and irresistible. And one thing’s for sure: the kids are not all right.
This was another of the books I bought as part of my Kindle book binge.
There are a number of books in my life that I come across in bookshops or see in windows, that I walk past for weeks, months or even years and never quite get round to buying. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was one such book – it took me four years from first seeing it in a shop in Venice and writing down the name, to finally reading it.
The Wasp Factory was another of these books (a matter of maybe six months in this case) – every time I went into Waterstones I picked it up and put it down. I’m glad that I finally decided to keep hold of it.
– gildius –