Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

Review of The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

It feels like an awfully long time since I read a Banks book, so my anticipation of his latest novel was duly heightened. I always prefer his science fiction work, though, and this is one of his ‘literary’ novels. I enjoyed it, nevertheless.

My main impression of the book is that it is perhaps his most mature work. It follows the usual Banks non-sf formula of presenting a character and situation and following that character through a period of his or her life, with everything that’s going on coming to a head in the last two or three chapters. But this time there is more of a sense of plot right from the beginning. Alban is a scion of a large Scotland-based family, whose late Victorian ancestor was the creator of a world-famous board game, Empire! (something like Risk, I imagine). The American company that already owns a quarter of the family firm now wants to buy them out completely. Alban is reluctantly pressed into leading the charge against the takeover.

He’s reluctant because he isn’t a fan of his extended family. I’d say nearly half the book is spent in flashback – we learn a lot about Alban’s early life, especially his relationship with his cousin Sophie. One of the things Banks does – as ever – is capture the feeling of family relations, the minutiae and the ambivalences. The very-nearly-octagenarian matriarch of the clan is pretty much an evil old cow who plays a major part in Alban’s dislike of his family, but she’s still portrayed in an even-handed way.

The story does indeed come to a climax in the last two or three chapters (the chapters are all pretty long, actually – there’s only ten in the near-400 page book, and the last of them is very short). The denouement is pretty Banksian, in terms of its turning the whole novel on its head, but I felt it wasn’t quite as effective – or maybe just not as interesting, or original – as it might have been. There is also a typical use of different points of view – Alban’s sections are third person, past tense; his cousin Fielding’s are third person, present tense; and – somewhat bizarrely – there’s a minor character who’s story is told in first person, present tense, complete with deliberate typos to reflect his education/class: ‘My names Tango’.

The main flaw I found with the novel was that towards the end, as the prospect of the American takeover come closer, Alban, both in his inner monologue and his conversations with others, tends to rant about US imperialism and Iraq and suchlike. This felt to me very much like Iain Banks speaking through his character (his views are no secret – I’ve read his fractionally autobiographical travelogue/drinkologue Raw Spirit and seen him on Question Time); more importantly, it was redundant and fairly tedious.

Personally, I think you’d have to have a mind of stone not to enjoy this book: it’s readable and well-written, it has a decent, if understated, plot, and, while it may not have the verve of his earlier stuff, it’s a very solidly crafted novel. Best of all, his next’ll be sf.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
  1. KW
    5 July 2007 at 3:55 am

    I’ve always been a big fan of Iain Banks- since The Wasp Factory, and unlike the original poster I prefer his fiction as opposed to the sci fi books.
    This one was very much in the mould of The Crow Road. Alban this time, but Prentice wouldn’t have felt out of place in this sequence of events.
    It certainly resonated with what I presume is the authors own feelings regarding the US and the Iraq war, which seemed to stand out from the page, raised upon a soap box, rather than scan with the rest of the story.
    There were some funny one liners, Inertia/ In Ayrshire made me laugh out loud, as did several others.
    The Tango character was very much in the style of Irvine Welsh, altho’ Banks could claim he did it first with Walking On Glass, but either way it’s been done before, and as an epilogue I suppose the book had to end some how, but it didn’t do it for me, I was left wanting more, after the late twist.
    That being said, it was an enjoyable read.

  2. 5 July 2007 at 4:49 am

    Good comments, KW. The book certainly is reminiscent of The Crow Road. I suppose you only have four years to wait until his next general fiction novel. 🙂

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