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It took me a while to realise that Iain Banks is, most of all, a teller of tales - I would call him a story-teller had this term not became a compliment-cum-invective usually reserved for Jeffrey Archers and Dan Browns of modern publishing world. This ability to tell stories - not to plot as much as to weave a yarn - combines with a penchant for creating appealing contexts for Banks' narratives to unfold in (this gets magnificently realised in the world building of his Iain M. Banks alter-ego) and populating them with memorable, larger than life but usually short of caricature, characters.
"The Steep Approach to Garbadale" reads like an offspring of "The Crow Road" mated with "The Business" and, considering that I loved both of those novels, it's not surprising that I liked "The Steep Approach to Garbadale" very much. It's essentially a belated-coming-of-age story, combining with creepy family dynamics, contemporary context, appealing characters and some enjoyable humour.
Alban McGill (and via his mother, a member of the Wopuld clan) is summoned out of his self-imposed exile from the fold to attend a family meeting at their Highland pile of Garbadale. The Wopuld clan made their fortune on the board game "Empire!", now morphed into a best-seller computer game, and the Wopulds have to decide whether to sell out to an American corporation. As all the Wopulds prepare for the Extraordinary General Meeting, Alban is enlisted by the anti-sell-off party to try and persuade the undecided.
As he travels from a grotty council flat on a Perth scheme, when he's been crashing out on a mate's floor to the home of his eccentric maiden aunts in Glasgow to his parents' comfortable place in Richmond and back up North to the lochs and mountains of the Scottish Highlands, Alban recalls all the significant moments of his life and ponders the unanswered questions.
Why did his mother commit suicide when he was only a toddler? Was it a simple case of post-natal depression or is there more to it? What caused his grandmother to react with such a ferocity to the discovery of his teenage affair with his cousin Sophie? Is he truly over his infatuation with her? Should the Wopuld firm be sold off? Does he love his mathematician friend and lover Verushka?
The story is compelling, the numerous flashbacks work seamlessly and naturally and the resolution is rather satisfactory although, on some level, rather fuzzy. I liked that and didn't feel it was a cop-out, more a hint at what things tend to be in real life: all this intrigue, and in the end, it doesn't really matter.
The denouement of the "family secret" sub-plot was both predictable and still rather shocking: it gave the characters involved an almost classically tragic air that I found genuinely affecting. Banks is very good indeed at describing convoluted and dark family dynamics that peter out to relative normalcy (after all, "The Wasp Factory" was a novel of just that), and he manages to do it without sounding in the least like an American psycholobabbler.
His characters are memorable, humane and likeable, self-aware but not particularly self-pitying, their humour wry but ultimately not cynical. They are also very much of their time, with their own political opinions and social concerns. I liked that too. I frequently find that unless the novel specifically deals with a particular event, many characters in modern fiction seem to live in an insular, self-centred world from which all the politics, all the current contexts, all the identifiable "outside the plot" events have been removed. Most real people do have political opinions which influence their actions, surface in conversations and occupy their thoughts: without those, contemporary characters always seem weirdly unfinished and limited.
The occasional first-person sections from Al's low-life mate speaking in green-grocer's apostrophes and other misspellings were rather hilarious while didn't feel entirely exploitative. You could call them unnecessary but I liked the framing I provided, rather like a ned parody of a Greek chorus.
There were moments when the construction details of the whole looked a bit shaky, as when an instance of a first-person narration appears once inexplicably to turn into the usual third-person within a couple of paragraphs.
But ultimately, I simply enjoyed "The Steep Approach to Garbadale" and this is, what, in the final counts, matters most. Personally, 4.5 stars, generally probably closer to 4, but still very much recommended.
The story centres on Alban McGill, part of the Wolpuld clan who have a hugely successful company built on the success of the board game "Empire!" Alban has been exiled from the family and the company for years, but is tracked down by his cousin Fielding because an American company wants to buy them out and Fielding wants Alban to help him drum up some opposition support from the various members their large family who are stake holders. However, the buy-out from the American company is merely a backdrop to the two main stories that carry through the book, and the reader travels backwards and forwards through his life to reveal the missing pieces.
The first of these stories relates to Alban's first love when he was a teenager, when he had a fling with his first cousin Sophie. The consequences of that affair live on through to the modern day where he is unable to have a proper relationship with anyone he meets as it becomes clear that his feelings for his cousin are very much unresolved. Their affair ends abruptly, and Alban has always hoped that it might be rekindled at a later stage.
The reader is taken back in time throughout the novel to revisit the times when he meets Sophie for the first time, during their love affair and how it ended, and then to when they meet again in the future. This story is particularly intriguing as Sophie is represented as this mysterious and beautiful character throughout so its really interesting to see how this relationship has developed over the years.
The second story that is weaved into the narrative is the death of Alban's mother, who committed suicide shortly after he was born. The general opinion throughout the Wolpuld family is that she was very depressed but upon returning to his family and speaking to an elderly great Aunt, it is revealed that Alban's mother had possibly another reason for committing suicide and its hinted that someone didn't want her to have the child.
Both of these stories are successfully woven into the story of the takeover as Alban goes back to the family fold to discover what he feels for his cousin and what actually happened to his mother.
The various members of the Wolpuld family that crop up throughout the book are wonderfully colourful and entertaining and you really get a feel that this is a wealthy dysfunctional family. Two of my favourite characters in the book are the elderly great aunts who have a wicked sense of humour and are delightfully funny.
Win, or Alban's Granmother is the head of the family and still very much in charge at nearly eighty years old. Throughout the book, we see why Alban hates his Grandmother (he does say he actually hates her too!) , she is smart, quick witted and appears to always know what's going on. Without ruining the end of the book, I will however admit that my opinion of her being a hard nosed so-and-so is changed somewhat towards the very last section.
Sophie, as I've mentioned before, is represented as a mysterious and beautiful character as seen through the eyes of Alban. Alban has always put his cousin on a pedestal, but on the visits back to his past, I found her an unexciting character, and Albans current on-off girlfriend, VB, was much more exciting.
The main character Alban is portrayed as a good looking loner, someone who is not driven by money, but is generous to friends and unable to love a woman fully due to his love of Sophie. However, when Sophie is on the scene, he seems to turn into an almost dribbling wreck, isn't it strange what love can do! I did enjoy his character immensely, and I did care about what happened to him, and wanted him to find out the answers to his big questions on his mother and Sophie.
~~My Opinion ~~
I was given this book by my housemate who told me that she couldn't put this book down and read it within days. I have to say, I go through books at a ridiculous pace but this one took me a lot longer than usual. I won't say it wasn't enjoyable, I enjoyed it mainly because it is quite different to what I've read before. I've never read a book by Iain Banks before and I found his characters interesting and the plot gripping, and I always like the juxtaposition of going back and forth in time throughout books, I like the suspense!
However, he does tend to "waffle" about nothing in particular, his descriptions can be a bit too long winded and I found myself skim reading large chunks towards the end of the book. He also seems to go on long rants which don't seem to have much connection to the story at all. For example, during his Grandmothers big birthday bash, Alban starts ranting to one of the Americans about the war in Iraq....I'm not quite sure what the relevance was!
Lastly, the ending of the novel felt a bit rushed. I felt like Banks had spent all this time developing the main character - who seems very complex - and when he gets the answers to his questions he appears to be straightened out. It was all very neat. Added to this, there is a strange "bookend" effect of a character called Tango, a friend of Albans, who crops up at the beginning of the book as a narrator, and then he also has the final say. As he is not one of the main characters, and the rest of the book is narrated in the third person I found this disconcerting.
I've heard that there are better Iain Banks novels out there, so I might be tempted to give another a go and see how it compares. The first section of the book doesn't pull you in at all but get past this and I'd say its worth it, the characters come to life and the whole story is intriguing. I'd have no problem recommending this to a friend.