“The Wasp Factory” Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory is technically part of my great re-read of the fiction on the shelves. It’s on the shelves, but I’ve never read it before. My brother had a copy when we both still lived at home (and he probably still has his copy) – so that must be late 80s or early 90s – and I remember flicking through a few pages here & there and deciding not to read it. I also remember my father reading it and mentioning it was gruesome. The copy on the shelf is one that J bought some time ago, and when I asked him to get it off the shelf (I can’t reach the top shelves of the bookcases without standing on chairs, it’s easier to ask) he said “oh, well that’ll be a ‘fun’ read for you”. So I approached the book with some trepidation …

Rightly so, as it very much lived up to the reputation it had built up in my head. And yet while I can’t say I enjoyed it per se, I’m glad I finally read it. Except now I’m stuck with trying to think of something to say about it! 😉

We’re inside the head of Frank, our 17 year old protagonist. Frank is not what one might call sane, to put it mildly. He’s been brought up in semi-isolation by his not entirely mentally stable father since the unfortunate incident when he was 3 years old. The story picks up when his older brother Eric escapes from the loony bin and starts to make his way home. Frank thinks about the past as he prepares himself & his home for his brother’s return & we learn about what he’s done & what his brother’s done & eventually what made him & them as disturbed as they are. I clearly read a bit of the end of the book before – I knew what the big reveal was for Frank. And I equally clearly hadn’t chanced across the big reveal for Eric’s own unfortunate incident, as I’m sure I’d’ve remembered it if I had.

As well as the black humour I think what saves it from being gross & instead made it a compelling read is the matter of factness of the presentation. Frank admits to being a little eccentric, but as he goes about blowing things up and killing small animals to make wards for the island you can see as the reader that he’s deeply deeply fucked up, but he just trundles along with an air of “well, obviously I’m doing that, it’s so clearly the right thing to do”. I picked there a couple of the milder indications of Frank’s disturbed nature – there’s a lot of death in this book, and a lot of it caused deliberately by Frank (although not all). Very much not for the squeamish reader.

I’m not quite sure what I think of it as a book, nor what I think it was about under the twistedness of it – a lack of anything intelligent to say here I’m afraid. While I’m glad I read it, partly because it’s been on the periphery of my awareness for so long, it’s not filled me with any desire to read any of the rest of Banks’s non-SF books (luckily for me we don’t own any more of that side of his work).