A while ago, several years in fact, I remember a Goodreads group titled something along the lines of I like books about weird people. There were hundreds of suggestions, books that explore a particular mind, to demonstrate our human variety in it’s lunacy and madness. Before reading through the list, however, I was certain one book deserved a high place in the rankings. Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory has been a long time personal favourite, a story of a very strange character, and rightly so, it was topping the selection, like a scary cherry.
There are no spoilers below!
The story goes. Frank, 16, lives on a small island in Scotland with his father. He spends his time building dams, going for long walks along the beach, getting drunk at the pub. Fairly normal. Frank’s days are also peppered with some other activities, including hunting small animals with his home made weapons, reciting memorised measurements of household objects, worshipping shrines, and, occasionally, murdering people. Not so normal, I suppose, the murders, as the blurb suggests, “I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”
This is an odd book. It’s about an odd person, who does odd things. You’ll find little sympathy, you’ll be uncomfortable, and it’s undoubtedly quite an unpleasant read.
But that’s not to say it’s a bad read – in fact, it’s the complete opposite. Whilst there are no role models, characters you’ll (hopefully!) find no relation to, the book has a huge conversion weight; Banks writes strange characters that beg discovery. It’s like covering your eyes with your hands during a horror film, but you peek between your fingers – you want to know what happens, you must know more about this person’s life, why there’s no official record of his birth, why his father imposes control, and what will happen to Eric, his older brother, who has escaped a mental institution and is coming home.
I’m afraid there’s not much more to say. The book delivers twists and turns, unexpected corners that quickly approach giving no guess for the road ahead. It’s a game of Pass the Parcel, and you’ve no idea how many layers there are, or how deep the rabbit hole goes, which only cements Banks’ talent in storytelling. You’ll have to be the one to start unwrapping. Be warned, the novel is staggered with grim events, awful memories, peculiar thoughts, and rises in increments of ghastly proportions, meeting a climax that will truly – truly – haunt.
Written with delicacy married to a strong narration, at times beautiful and poetic in prose, Banks’ first novel is brilliant. There’s controversy regarding a few things (some which are self evident) but I think that only goes to strengthen the book. This is a great horror, and achieves it’s purpose: to disturb, to wrought. Any good horror will make you feel uneasy… yet have you curious for more.
This is not for the faint of heart, and I strongly recommend it.