Saturday, May 3, 2014

[Review] The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks

(I'll come clean: this is my first time reading Iain Banks. I haven't read the Culture series, nor The Wasp Factory, nor the rest of his oeuvre. Anybody who wishes to register a complaint should line up behind the You've never read Terry Pratchett!? folks.)

The Steep Approach to Garbadale follows Alban Wopuld, returning to the family fold after many years of self-imposed exile. The family business — a board games empire bigger than Parker Brothers — has been offered a buyout by its American partners, and as the rest of the Wopuld clan descends upon their eponymous ancestral estate for an Extraordinary General Meeting, Alban finds himself revisiting childhood flames and uncovering long-hidden family secrets.

Family is constantly at war with itself in Banks's twenty-first novel, most notably with the sharp family upheaval that follows Alban's teenage love affair with his cousin Sophie: a passion which sees the youths excoriated and separated by the family's stern matriarch, Win. More than a decade on, Alban still grapples ineffectually with the aftermath, and the question of closure weighs heavily over his mind. Years earlier, Alban's mother, Irene, took her own life, in what initially is cast as post-natal depression but which, as the novel progresses, reveals itself to be something more sinister.

Banks makes no secret of the link between water and death here: departed mother Irene in her hunting coat descending into the waters of Garbadale (the water chilling her utterly, sucking the warmth from her body), the adrenaline-seeking mathematician Verushka's traumatic brush with the tsunami of '04 (the thunder of its falling on the exposed reefs and sand, the splintering, crashing sound of it smashing trees), the lakeside fishing expedition beset by hounding rain as the tale approaches its climax. Water here stands for the elements, nature writ large: the characters may choose to weather it, fight it, or embrace it with open arms, but they cannot overcome it.

It is nature, however, which Alban retreats to — the book opens with his cousin Fielding tracking him down in a remote town nestled in forests and farmland — and in The Steep Approach we see the relative wilderness posed in stark contrast to the order and genteelness of the Wopuld clan. Even in his younger years Alban prefers to get his hands dirty, tending to the garden in the family estate at Lydcombe. We are shown a character far more at ease in nature's way than in the prim trappings of the family business.

Richmond was a strange, crowded, busy place after Lydcombe. The house was only a little smaller, apparently, but much more vertical and far more ordered; fewer eccentric corridors, half-landings, erratic staircases and oddly shaped rooms. It felt tight and constrained after Lydcombe, as though the building was forever standing at attention, incapable of relaxing.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, by Iain Banks (2007)

Banks's prose is that of an seasoned author: precise yet illustrative, personal yet with a mordant edge of remove. Different voices enter and depart the narrative effortlessly, from Fielding, a libertine hiding beneath a businesslike veneer, to Alban's late mother and the all-too-accurately sketched depressive haze she departed the world in... and of course, too, Alban, who we see progress from the naivety of youth to his present-day weariness, his past at once both behind him and suffusing his every idle thought.