the Little Red Reviewer

The Quarry, by Iain Banks

Posted on: July 5, 2013

the quarryThe Quarry, by Iain Banks

published June 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher

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I’m supposed to be reviewing Hugo stuff, you say?

Don’t you worry, I got plenty of that sweet stuff right around the corner for you, but when an Iain Banks shows up on your doorstep, everything else gets brushed aside. It’s like getting a Lynch, or a Rothfuss, you know?

The Quarry was Iain Banks’ final novel. It’s tough for me to even type that without getting a lump in my throat. He wrote somewhere that had he known this was going to be his last, he would have written a better book, something more epic. Personally, I think he chose a damn good one to go out on. No “M” in the name means this is plain old contemporary fiction. No spaceships, no aliens, no artificial intelligences, no galaxy spanning cultures.  It’s been ages since I read a good old novel. If they were all this good, I’d read ‘em more often.

Eighteen year old Kit lives with his dying father Guy in an old house that’s falling apart. In the final stages of terminal cancer, Guy grudgingly depends on Kit for everything, often lashing out at him in frustration. It’s never explicitly stated, but Kit is definitely on the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum.

The entire story is told in present tense from Kit’s point of view, and it’s his voice that really pulls you in.  He has so much to say, he just doesn’t quite know how to say it, or who to say it to, or why in fact, things like that even need to be said. He doesn’t understand rhetorical questions or why people just can’t say what they are thinking or feeling. Guy obviously loves his son very much, but it’s unfortunate that there are very few places where Kit is accepted for who he is. Had the story been from anyone else’s point of view, he would have been a quiet kid who faded into the background, and the reader would have missed out on an incredible character.

Over a long weekend, Guy’s old friends from college visit to pay their last respects: Holly, the film critic; Paul, the lawyer with political ambitions; Rob and Alison, the dot-com business people; Priscilla the single mother who is still trying to figure everything out; and Haze the handsome pothead.

During film school, they all lived together in Guy’s big old house, making silly movies they all starred in, being promiscuous, and trying all the drugs they could find. A year or two later, a tiny bundle was left on the doorstep. That bundle was Kit, and Guy has never told his son who his mother is.  There’s also the question of one final tape, one particular silly parody movie that could be very embarrassing if it was made public. Guy swears he still has the tape, but thinks he might have taped over it. Kit of course, is curious, and everyone’s tacit denial that it’s a sextape convinces him that it is.

Kit has always looked up to his father’s friends, they are older and wiser, right?  He’s got Holly on such a pedestal that he’s not sure if he should be asking her if she’s his mum, or trying to kiss her.  Could Alison or Priscilla be his mother, or have any hints about who else Guy was sleeping with at the time?

For a book that appears to be about nothing much, The Quarry is intensely fast paced, helped along by the present tense narrative. (I mean c’mon, this is a Banks, of course it’s going to be unputdownable.) It becomes a priority to find the tape, so they search the house, discuss politics, dig up old secrets, and when that gets tedious they drink and smoke. At some points the discussion is so light (such as the scene where it’s suggested someone is a “tripe-bollocked waste of flatulence”),  you can almost forget Kit is about to be an orphan.

I felt terrible for Guy.  You can psych yourself up for a root canal, you can psych yourself for an exam or a court date or to kill that spider in the bathtub. But seriously, how the fuck do you psych yourself up to die? How do you live your life with any kind of fucking dignity, when you can’t even wipe your own ass?  Sometimes Guy comes off as an asshole, but if I was in his position, I’m not sure I would act any differently.

In an awful case of art imitating life, near the end of the book, Guy says:

“Thought I could at least control something, take fucking charge of something, impose my own fucking schedule on what was happening to me, rather than just being . . . prey to it.”

I expect everyone will experience something completely different when they read The Quarry, but for me it felt like a surreal grief counseling session; in turns quiet, intimate, sometimes intensely funny, and sometimes very difficult to get through.  You’re not even close to feeling all better by the end of the session, but you’ve started flirting with closure.

Don’t misunderstand, this book has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife, and isn’t one of those feel-good inspirational stories, quite the opposite in fact.  It’s a little like Pirate Radio meets The Big Chill, but with more swearing, more drugs and alcohol, more yelling, and it doesn’t start with a funeral. Death is not polite, or politically correct, or clean. Death is ugly and cruel and we should be allowed to curse it and tell it to go fuck itself if we feel like it.  Sometimes it feels damn good to have a good scream or cry and tell someone how you really feel.

But again, you might get something completely different out of The Quarry.  You might just think it’s a damn good novel, and that’s totally cool too.

5 Responses to "The Quarry, by Iain Banks"

I am embarrassed to admit I’ve never read any Banks, but have been wanting to start. Any starting place recs?

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don’t be embarrassed, he’s unfortunately rather under the radar. This is the only contemporary fiction of his that I’ve read, but his science fiction space opera series The Culture is what he’s famous for in SF circles. You can read The Culture books in any order, but I’d suggest starting with Look to Windward or Player of Games. Banks enjoys throwing readers into the deep end and watching them drown, and those two Culture books are just slightly shallower. I have both of those in my review index up top, if you want to learn mroe about them.

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Yep, I’m with Emily. I havent’ read any – but I do own some. It’s that age old problem of buying too many books that you can’t possibly keep up with and then the longer the book sits in the pile the less compelled you feel to pick it up. And why is that the case anyway. I buy books that I’m almost tripping up over my own feet to rush out and purchase but then once I own them I go off the boil! I need to go and sort my shelves and my tbr pile (and myself!) out and get things in order.
Lynn😀

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Ironic isn’t it that Iain’s last novel would have a protagonist so intimately involved with his dying father. Could this be intuition of what was to come?

Shakti

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Completely possible. and i imagine we’re not the only people to think so.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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