Content warning: discussion of death and religion. Also, references to a corpse blowing up due to poor medical practice.
Iain Banks was one of those authors who, like Siobhan Dowd, I wish I'd discovered earlier, if only to hope I could one day meet them and shake their hand. As it is, I'm left with the legacy of their work to peruse and marvel at.
Long-time readers of this blog will remember Ceilidh's heartfelt tribute to Iain Banks when he died last year. At the time, the only novel of his that I'd read was "The Wasp Factory", which I felt was insufficient for me to say anything about the author in general.
So I picked up "The Crow Road."
It took me months to read.
Mostly because the main character Prentice spends about 80% of the novel being an entitled little shit.
If "The Crow Road" had been released today, would it have been classified as NA? It certainly has some of the qualifiers - a main character in University rebelling against his father and having pantsfeelings for an unattainable girl most notably - and yet, once again, it would have been ahead of its time, since its subject matter and treatment are something of a rarity in this marketing section.
"The Crow Road" is a novel about growing up and about death. In fact, the two themes are so tightly drawn, it is impossible to talk about them separately. It starts with Prentice at his grandmother's funeral, where he alternates between being prissy at his dad and dreaming of the divine Verity, then the grandmother explodes because somebody forgot to take the pacemaker out before she was cremated, and it pretty much goes on like that for the rest of the book. There are some subplots which will appeal to fans of mysteries and family secrets, but for the most part, the novel is about Prentice coming to terms with being an adult.
Fair warning: this book contains quite a debate about religion and death, and ends with a fairly concrete resolution on the part of Prentice as to whether there is life after death or not.
Minor spoilers ahoy.
The reason why Prentice and his father fight is because, after a friend dies, young Prentice doesn't find comfort in his father's pragmatic atheism. The novel pretty much goes around this main theme, on whether there is life after death, whether it is worth believing in that, whether it's possible (or fair) for someone with memories and dreams and energy to just cease to exist. In some ways, it is frustrating, because you know where one person is coming from, and you know where the other person is coming from, AND WHY WON'T YOU JUST GET ALONG?
On the other hand, if this was a debate that could be solved with a little more tolerance and compassion, life would be a lot different.
We on the Lantern have often talked about the subject of framing and how important it is in a book, because despite the fact that the POV character is a single character, and therefore their resolutions and opinions are personal to them, it is still important to talk about the wider implications and what the book tells us about the ultimate resolution. I bring that up because Prentice's final resolution might be what makes or breaks this book for you.
At the start of "The Crow Road" Prentice is a frustrating young man who goes out of his way to be an entitled little shit to everyone he meets, and he's really determined to show his atheist father that he can have religion and opinions and whatnot. By the end, though, through much error and heartbreak, he learns to respect others, he gains a little self-awareness, he becomes more mature... and then seriously reconsiders his stance on religion, because... well, he discovered that his clinging to it was immature and that his reasoning was flawed.
Now, to me, that's not entirely bad because it's more or less fitting within my own perspective of things. However, given that the framing of that revelation - that Prentice's clinging to religion was childish, and giving up was a step towards adulthood - I feel like we should take it more as universal truth rather than one character living it out, and I'm not sure I agree with that.
I have my own views on certain subjects, and I can understand how others might have different ones. And for something as controversial as religion, where there is no clear answer for anything, it's important for people to be able to respect differences without interfering with each other's lives. I find Prentice's resolution a good one, but for someone else, I can see how it might not be.
This of course raises the subject of framing again, and whether positive or negative framing is a good thing. Unfortunately, my brain hurts already, so I'll just leave this for you to ponder in the comments section: should an author maintain a fully neutral stance on controversial issues? Can a book/ main character be biased without turning into propaganda?