Then today I heard the sad news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer and does not expect to live for longer than a year. Of course my heart goes out to him and his family, but it also aches for us the readers, the consumers of his art. Those of you who know Iain’s work will appreciate what a loss this will be, although his books don’t consistently reach the heights of his début The Wasp Factory, his legacy includes some absolute gems.
Iain is the master of the opening paragraph, the most famous of which is probably from The Crow Road and begins with, “It all started the day my grandmother exploded.” That’s not my favourite though, that honour belongs to Espedair Street; a dark, yet slightly comical, assessment of the life of an ageing rock star, a man who has it all and now can’t decide what to do with any of it. I loved it, from the moment I read it, I ‘got’ this book in a way I could never describe. Few books come close in my mind, only the collaborative efforts of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman on Good Omens pips it in my top five. The opening paragraph sees our protagonist (Daniel Weir) discuss his intended exit from the world, “Two days ago I decided to kill myself…” It then describes just how he intends to exit this mortal realm by diving into the cold waters off the west coast, before throwing you, the reader, a life ring “Last night I changed my mind and decided to stay alive. Everything that follows is… Just to try and explain.”
What follows is a tale that makes me feel good every time I read it. It’s not a light story by any standards, but it’s engrossing and believable and by the time Danny makes his fateful journey, you fully expect him to go through with his plan despite the opening assurances. Then the ending comes and the grief pours out of him (and you) to be replaced with a strange feeling of acceptance, a realisation that happiness is found within, with those who love you and in the love you hold for others. Few books will ever manage to pull of that trick so well.
So Iain Banks (with or without the M), for The Bridge, for Complicity, for The Crow Road, The Business and The Wasp Factory I salute you, because they are all great works, but for Espedair Street I will thank you, because it makes the world a better place to live in.