The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (in Heathrow airport)

Bad news: I had an obscenely long wait for my flight to Istanbul due to bad weather in London.

Good news: I had plenty of time to read!

I started and finished The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks with mixed feelings. I started with mixed feelings because I’d been awake since 4am and everything seemed like too much effort. I finished with mixed feelings because it is a strange book.

Set in a remote village in Scotland, The Wasp Factory is a kind of coming of age story. 16 year old Frank lives with his father on their ‘island’, in virtual isolation except for occasional outings with his one friend Jamie, the dwarf. Otherwise Frank lives in a strange world of his eccentric father’s secrets while practising his own pagan rituals of death and destruction.

The novel opens as Frank learns that his brother, Eric, has escaped from a psychiatric institution. Frank is both eager to see him and a little bit worried because, as he tells us, his brother is insane. Although not far into the book I found myself beginning to doubt Frank’s own sanity. Frank moves around the island, creating and destroying elaborate damns, killing small animals and using them for the strange rituals that he believes will give him power over the island and his future. As Eric gets closer, Frank reveals the secrets of his past and the story builds up to a shocking twist.

Banks creates an evocative and moody setting. The scenery of Frank’s home is a wonderfully gothic setting for Frank’s macabre revelations and the tense atmosphere is palpable. Frank’s cold tone and strange acts of violence are undermined as Banks forced me to sympathise with him, against my initial feelings of disgust. Where the book fell down, for me, was in the explanation. Some of the big reveals are great, creating more mysteries and complexities around the main characters. But often the explanations of Frank’s ritualistic activities undid the sense of repulsion that had been so effective. And the twist is SO over-explained at the very end that I actually felt like my intelligence was being insulted.

Ultimately, for me, the explanations and revelations couldn’t live up to the wonderfully dark atmosphere that had been created.


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