Scotland, present day. Stewart Gilmour, a lighting designer in his mid-twenties, is returning to his Scottish hometown after five years of exile to attend a funeral. He’s nervous about his return because of the circumstances of his leaving. Given a weekend’s grace to be in Stonemouth by local gangsters, Stewart faces up to those he left behind and those he let down.
On the surface, Stonemouth has much in common with at least two of Banks’s previous novels, The Steep Approach to Garbadale and The Crow Road, in that family secrets and indiscretions and funerals are involved. Banks may to some extent be reworking terrain he’s approached in the past, then, but that’s not to say that Stonemouth isn’t an impressive creation in its own right. I’m not sure that it’s a novel that’ll win many new fans, (and Banks is one of the few literary novelists who actually provokes a fan reaction) but if you’re already sold on his contemporary world novels – Scots-centric, tech-savvy, left of centre, concerned with what happens when a confident man oversteps the mark, then you’ll lap this up.
Even if you’re not sold by that, then what will impress is Banks’s control of time, space and tension. He can wring huge amounts of apprehension out of his protagonist’s worry over what might may happen and there’s delight and surprise as we (and Stewart) piece together fully the events that led to him being run out of town five years earlier through both flashbacks and investigation.
Stonemouth could easily overbalance into something parodic (there’s violence, drugs, rival gangster families, true/forbidden love and the ever-present threat of the local suspension bridge and being thrown off it) but all these elements are held together well, delivering a novel that is affecting, funny, and at times scary, clever and brutal. In a word, smart.
Banks, Iain. 2012. Stonemouth (London: Little, Brown), 356 pages, 978-1408702505