When I was in my 2nd year of high school, I moved from reading the teen section of my school library to the adult section. The adult section was about the quarter the size of the teen section, and jam-packed with huge tomes with familiar names, some of which had never been checked out. I quickly immersed myself in chunky paperbacks full of stuff that was entirely inappropriate for a 14 year old – mainly gritty crime fiction and the Hannibal Lecter series, but basically, I would read anything. During one English class, we ended up doing a close reading assessment of the opening chapter of “The Crow Road” by Scottish writer Iain Banks, the book with my all-time favourite opening line:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
How could you not love a line like that? Of course, I was hooked and had to go read one of his books straightaway. Unfortunately, at the time somebody had already checked out “The Crow Road” so I browsed through Banks’s other books and was drawn to one with a simple black and white cover entitled “The Wasp Factory”. The blurb talked about a murdering child so it was basically right up my alley. I read the sort of books that made people worry about me and I loved it!
I remember being completely engrossed in that book for the couple of days it took me to read. I would rush to finish my classwork so I could have free time to read it. One day in geography class, my teacher excitedly asked me how I was liking the book and if I’d gotten to the end yet (I hadn’t but even that vague warning couldn’t have prepared me for it). When I did finish the book we ended up having a great chat about it. My class-mates didn’t tend to read the stuff I did – probably because they didn’t want people to think they were murderers – so having someone to talk about it with meant a lot to me. I eventually did read “The Crow Road” and loved it but it didn’t impact me in the same way “The Wasp Factory”, in all its disturbing, visceral and bleakly funny way, did.
I mention this because, as you probably know, Iain Banks died yesterday after a short battle with terminal cancer. I haven’t read a lot of Banks’s work but sometimes all it takes is one book to make a difference. “The Wasp Factory” shaped me in a huge way. It’s one of the defining pieces of entertainment in my life, up there with “The History Boys”, “Harry Potter” and the music of Rufus Wainwright. One of the reasons I wanted to study English literature was because of that book. I desperately wanted to understand every page as well as look into literary criticism (the fact that this book’s critical quotes section included ones from people who loathed it just made me smile so much). His work was the sort of stuff I wanted to write for the longest time because to me it felt completely honest, viscerally so. I wanted everyone to read this book so they could understand why I loved it so much.
That was almost 10 years ago but the impact it made on me remains, and it breaks my heart to write this.
It only takes one book to change everything. So thank you, Iain Banks, for everything you gave me.