The Crow Road

Collected Works: Literature


The Crow Road

by Iain Banks

View the book cover

A group of adolescent friends sit in an observatory, playing cards, smoking weed, and listening to Cocteau Twins songs. As a boy pines for one of the girls present, Verity Walker, his thoughts are soundtracked by the dream pop band’s ‘galactic harmonies’ and unintelligible vocals. The glossolalia singing may elude semantic meaning, leaving nothing but syllabic soup or phonetic plasticine, but in his half-baked reasoning, he assigns to it a deep worth. In the sober light of day, though, trying to make sense of the muddle of life proves far trickier.

This cocktail of music and drugs is one defining experience of many in the coming-of-age tale of Prentice McHoan, a Scottish university student. We first meet him halfway through an ill-fated funeral in his hometown, the dreary service punctuated with a bang: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ That opening line encapsulates three of the book’s driving forces: relatives, loss, and black comedy. The Crow Road veers from one genre to another, family drama to murder mystery, with Prentice’s ongoing transition to adulthood acting as a constant theme.

Far from jarring, these shifts in register are central to the narrator’s meandering journey. Similarly, the novel employs flashbacks and transferals of perspective, through which we become more closely acquainted with the eccentricities of the McHoan family, and of Prentice’s complicated position within it. His relationship with his father is marred by religious differences, and his older brother is the source of both embarrassment and envy. Chapter Five opens with a particularly eyebrow-raising declaration: ‘I was in bed with my Aunty Janice.’

Not a blood relation, Prentice hastens to add. Just the ex-girlfriend of an uncle long presumed dead, whose disappearance he has decided to investigate. ‘The crow road’ was the title of a book that this uncle had started, as well as an expression for passing away. Prentice obsesses over this morbid subject. Alongside the more typical teenage concerns of cars, sex, and alcohol, it dominates his jumble of formative thoughts. As we read, we may be reminded of our own youth, those confusing years that we will recall faintly and fondly when we are ready to set foot down the crow road ourselves.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can read an excerpt of the novel on Google Books here, and visit Iain Bank's official website (which features many interviews with the author) here. His last interview was conducted by Stuart Kelly, and published in The Guardian.

A number of retrospective articles were written about Iain Banks following his death in June 2013, including (but by no means limited to) those by: Stuart Kelly for Granta Magazine; Nick Barley for The Economist; Sean Kitching for The Quietus; Helen Lewis for New Statesman; and Neil Gaiman for his personal blog, which can be found here.

Question of the day

Which books, poems, or stories about growing up would you recommend, and why?
Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Makes no concessions and takes no prisoners: dysfunctional childhood, adult intellectual analysis, and compassion. (→)

– Emma Donoghue, author of 'The Wonder', 'Frog Music', and 'Room' (via The Brief →)

Also on Silent Frame