Here’s what happens in Stonemouth: a guy in his late 20s returns home for a funeral. It’s in Scotland. There’s a mystery at the centre of his return home. He’s got lots of friends in his home town and there’s a fair bit of recall of past adventures with them and reflection on where they’re all at now. So far, so Iain Banks.
Stonemouth was promoted to me as being halfway between The Crow Road (a five-star read for me) and The Wasp Factory (one I haven’t read) and has been touted by the fans on Good Reads as ‘a return to form.’
Early on in the book Banks does return to form in a flashback set-piece where the group of friends are playing paintball in the Scottish countryside. The writing and the adventure brought to mind The Crow Road and it was an enjoyable few pages of Banks at his best. The rest of the book? Not so much.
At the heart of Stonemouth is an unspoken mystery (gratifyingly you do find out what it is) but I realised about a third of the way into the book that the mystery didn’t engage or compel me and I no longer cared to find out what it was.
The mystery – and the seriousness of its nature – is built up by the behaviour of the thugs in the story: a set of brothers from a crime family. However bad they were I never felt their menace – Banks talked a lot about their behaviour but it was a telling rather than a showing that didn’t give the kick that I expected. Sure, the brothers did a couple of awful things in the spirit of thuggery but for some reason the impact of their behaviour didn’t resonate with me as a reader.
Stonemouth lacked passion – when I read The Crow Road it seemed like a book that the writer had made a commitment to bringing into being. It was richly written, layered with plot, had a cast of characters that were well developed and believable and packed a punch.
Stonemouth lacked that passion and at times was downright annoying. For example, page 177 had a paragraph that was seemingly so blatant a product placement for Ultimate Ears LEs headphones that I had to put down the book and look it up on my phone to see if they really exist (they do). Likewise, in case you’re wondering the preferred mobile phone of choice in Stonemouth is an iPhone. I’m not against contemporary references in literature – but they need to be a part of the story not advertorial (see The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner as an example of how to seamlessly integrate such references).
Iain Banks is without doubt a prolific writer and fans of his work will flock to a new novel without my two cents worth. But for those who are expecting a return to the form of The Crow Road you won’t find it here.
Reviewed by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ
by Iain Banks
Published by Little Brown