Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
When Iain Banks’ last novel The Quarry was published posthumously, a couple of weeks after his death from gall bladder cancer last year, as a fan of his from the beginning I bought the hardback – but I couldn’t read it, the loss was personal. I had been planning a ‘BanksRead’ on my blog – a systematic (re)reading project of all his mainstream fiction –when the announcement came of his imminent demise. I put the project into mothballs after re-visiting his remarkable debut novel The Wasp Factory once more.
The months have gone by, and although I’m still sad for the loss of one of my favourite authors, realising that the paperback was due out I did become curious to read The Quarry; make of that timing what you will!
This is a novel about a father and his son. Kit is eighteen. He’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum that, as he says,
‘stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other, both of which I am comfortable with.’
Kit has grown up without a mother, his dad has never told him who she was. He lives with his father Guy in a crumbling old house close to a huge quarry in the Pennines. Guy has terminal cancer – he has months, maybe just weeks to live.
The story takes place over one long weekend when Guy’s best friends, who all met at university where they shared the big house together, return for one last weekend with him determined to give him a great time. In this respect, it’s Banks’ novel equivalent of films Peter’s Friends or The Big Chill.
It is ironic that Banks only found out about his own cancer as he was finishing the book, for Guy is full of anger at his death sentence. We’re not given the details of his treatment or how long he’s suffered, but he is certainly not ready to go.
‘Who f***ing does want to die?’ he says, staring up at me. ‘Until something in your life gets so bad you feel it’s the only thing that’ll stop the f***ing awfulness?’ He looks away, into the darkness at the far end of the room. ‘I’m scared to f***ing death, Kit. Not of anything; not of hell or any bollocks like that; just at the thought of not f***ing being any more. …’ More coughing. ‘I hate the thought of the world and all the people in it just going merrily on without me after I’m gone. How f***ing dare they? I should have had another forty, fifty years? I’m getting short-changed here … Just lose-f***ing-lose, all round.’
Guy’s friends have all moved on since uni, all got careers, all made their way in the world. There’s Hol, a journalist, left wing; Alison and Rob who are corporate high-flyers; Paul – rich and Tory; Haze – always on the scrounge, and Pris. It doesn’t take long for the banter between them to start – Hol and Paul in particular start on politics:
‘I’m not arguing there are no decent people in the Tory party,’ Hol says to Paul. I think she’s trying to keep calm now. ‘But they’re like bits of sweetcorn in a turd; technically they’ve kept their integrity, but they’re still embedded in shit.’
As you can see by now, the conversation is definitely robust. They appear to fall into their old friendships, but it becomes clear that there is an elephant in the room, they all have an ulterior motive for returning apart from seeing Guy. Said plot device is a sex tape that they all made while students – they all do their best to keep the details from Kit, but their search for it will take up large parts of the weekend. The other main plot driver is the secret of who is Kit’s mother, something he’ll manage to ask each of the three women in the group before they go.
Otherwise, they just all get drunk – a lot, snort a few lines, smoke a few joints, go for a wander up the ruined tower up the road, have a big bonfire, bicker, argue – their friendship as a big group is not quite what it was, and that’s it.
All this is observed by our narrator, Kit, who sees everything – but in his own analytical way. He’s in a difficult position, subject to a power of attorney over his ability to look after himself once Guy dies – however, he repeatedly shows that he is more than capable. Over the years he has been taught by Hol and others how to fit in better – what to say in certain situations, he’s learned to respond to the emotions of others even if he doesn’t understand them, and in doing so knows himself better too. Amongst this disparate bunch of flawed characters, Kit stands out as a decent young man, on the cusp of getting a real life.
Clan gatherings, home-comings – these are recurring themes in Banks’ work. Who can forget the opening of The Crow Road – ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ – one of literature’s great first lines. Banks’ penultimate novel Stonemouth also concerns a funeral. The Quarry is of course about endings too, a wake for the end of a way of life: for Kit, having to strike out on his own; for the house – which will become part of the quarry soon; for poor Guy of course; but also the parting of the ways for the group of friends. There is the merest glimmer of new beginnings too, as in the end credits of high-school movies, where we find out what happened to all those crazy guys.
It’s not Banks’ best novel by a long shot: the characters are stereotyped, the plot is negligible – but – it is undeniably powerful and sad, and it is impossible to read it without thinking of the author’s own predicament. Rest In Peace, Iain.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and wants to shake the mothballs off her BanksRead project soon.
Iain Banks, The Quarry (Little, Brown: London, 2013) 978-0349138596, 384 pp., Abacus paperback.