Category: Iain Banks

book review – The Steep Approach to Garbadale


The Steep Approach To Garbadale is the first Iain Banks I have read for a while. The blurb on the dust jacket would lead you to believe it is one of the finest things he has ever written.

Things start badly with some Scottish stereotypes of the Irving Welsh variety living in a council flat drinking and drugging and not contributing much to anyone. But entering their world is a smart executive who is searching for his cousin – Alban – to take him home to vote against a takeover of the family firm and mark the occasion of his grandmother’s 80th birthday.

As a result of that opening you are left with several questions. First is the question of Alban and that is quickly followed by trying to work out who is family is. These two questions keep the book going through its 300 plus pages. The way the story is told is through a series of flashbacks, which come without any warning and end just as quickly.

The result of the flashback technique is that this becomes almost a series of images going back and forth with the reader advancing occasionally but more often than not having to go back even further to get the context for the Alban situation. In some senses the impact is probably how it feels to be playing a game of snakes and ladders with the forward and backwards taking players in random directions.

But as well as putting the relationships between Alban and the family firm and his grandmother into some context there are two main story lines running through the book. The first is mainly told in flashbacks with the growth of the love between Alban and his cousin Sophie. They are finally split apart by the grandmother. But he still holds a torch for her and will the big family get together be a chance to rekindle old flames?

Secondly Alban’s mother killed herself when he was not much more than a babe in arms and one of the aunts implies that there was some pressure on her to lose the baby and that drove her to suicide. Again will the big birthday bash with all of the family gathered together be the chance to solve that mystery?

Without giving the ending away the final few chapters of the book do deliver a result on both counts but in a typical Banks way. No penis in jars moments but something equally as dark. The idea seems to be that lurking inside every family is some horrible sort of secret. That darkness does make the last few chapters grab you but it is after a long battle with the flashback mechanism. Possibly alternate chapters might have been a better way of driving the plot forward rather than the headache inducing backwards and forwards here.

It is still going to be hard for Banks to beat The Crow Road if he is looking for a family epic with dark secrets and destructive passions. But this is not that bad a read either. Losing the bookends of the Scottish drunks would have made it even better.

Version read – Abacus paperback

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book review – The Steep Approach to Garbadale


The Steep Approach To Garbadale is the first Iain Banks I have read for a while. The blurb on the dust jacket would lead you to believe it is one of the finest things he has ever written.

Things start badly with some Scottish stereotypes of the Irving Welsh variety living in a council flat drinking and drugging and not contributing much to anyone. But entering their world is a smart executive who is searching for his cousin – Alban – to take him home to vote against a takeover of the family firm and mark the occasion of his grandmother’s 80th birthday.

As a result of that opening you are left with several questions. First is the question of Alban and that is quickly followed by trying to work out who is family is. These two questions keep the book going through its 300 plus pages. The way the story is told is through a series of flashbacks, which come without any warning and end just as quickly.

The result of the flashback technique is that this becomes almost a series of images going back and forth with the reader advancing occasionally but more often than not having to go back even further to get the context for the Alban situation. In some senses the impact is probably how it feels to be playing a game of snakes and ladders with the forward and backwards taking players in random directions.

But as well as putting the relationships between Alban and the family firm and his grandmother into some context there are two main story lines running through the book. The first is mainly told in flashbacks with the growth of the love between Alban and his cousin Sophie. They are finally split apart by the grandmother. But he still holds a torch for her and will the big family get together be a chance to rekindle old flames?

Secondly Alban’s mother killed herself when he was not much more than a babe in arms and one of the aunts implies that there was some pressure on her to lose the baby and that drove her to suicide. Again will the big birthday bash with all of the family gathered together be the chance to solve that mystery?

Without giving the ending away the final few chapters of the book do deliver a result on both counts but in a typical Banks way. No penis in jars moments but something equally as dark. The idea seems to be that lurking inside every family is some horrible sort of secret. That darkness does make the last few chapters grab you but it is after a long battle with the flashback mechanism. Possibly alternate chapters might have been a better way of driving the plot forward rather than the headache inducing backwards and forwards here.

It is still going to be hard for Banks to beat The Crow Road if he is looking for a family epic with dark secrets and destructive passions. But this is not that bad a read either. Losing the bookends of the Scottish drunks would have made it even better.

Version read – Abacus paperback

Lunchtime read: The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Well there is still room for a twist in the tale with the main surprise being that you discover that you really do care about Alban after all. That concern comes when you start to get the sense that he might be killed as a result of his prying and aggressive stance towards the American company taking over his family’s company.

The realisation that here is a character that you don’t want to see snuffed out yet comes at roughly the same time he realises he no longer loves Sophie.

But he also understands that Sophie was in some way the key to the mystery of his mother’s suicide so creates one last scene pretending to love her to prise open his grandma. This time she tells the truth and the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. Not just about his mother but also about the true nature of what being loyal to the family firm involved.

The final few pages are taken up with the voice of the drugged out bum that had been living with Alban at the start of the novel. Quite why this character was needed escapes me Fielding could have worked just as well for a different standpoint. Anyway the reader is left with all the loose ends tied up.

This type of sprawling family epic had its attractions but I’ll save my thoughts for the review…

Lunchtime read: The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Banks is winding it up now with Alban suddenly getting clarity on quite a few of the questions that have been going through his head.

Firstly, he goes fishing with Sophie and realises that although he loves her the feeling is not mutual and he is wasting his time thinking anymore about a life with her.

On their way back from fishing the pull to start the engine comes loose and they only just manage to get back in time for the AGM and the discussion of the sale. Both Sophie and Alban suspect that the cord was cut with the idea of preventing them from returning in time for the meetings.

As the action draws closer the use of flashbacks diminishes and there is a technique of using different view points to give a feeling of large numbers of people and the uncertainty of the sale.

Secondly, Alban suspects his grandmother of authorising the cord being cut and comes close to accusing her of driving his mother to suicide. She certainly fits the sort of person who could do that being a grudge-bearing and manipulative old crone.

Finally, as the storms lash the Highlands Alban is spending a fair amount of time worried about his girlfriend out climbing alone. Is that the love he thought he could only feel for Sophie coming out? He doesn’t seem to realise it but it has to be.

This has reminded me of The Crow Road but it lacks the same power that story did. Maybe it is because at a big part of the heart of it is a story about money and greed – something that is cold and not easily empathised with.

Final chunk and the showdown and climax tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Steep Approach to Garbadale

The same technique of flashbacks is used to build the narrative history up to the point where there can be a climax to the story.

For that to happen Banks tells you what happened with Sophie and Alban in the intervening years after they were caught in a compromising situation in the garden. They meet in LA and make love, something she seems to regret, and then after that meet again years later at a trade fair in Singapore.

In Singapore he opens his heart and tells her that he loves her but she rejects him – details of that encounter to come – and he seeks refuge in drink.

At the same time there are episodes weaved in with his family, mainly his grandmother, who he hates for splitting him and Sophie up. She can read him like a book and realises he is unhappy and wants to leave the family firm.

You also suspect she is the one behind his mother’s suicide but maybe I’m shooting the gun there. Mind you there is a murder mystery element to this book as well as the love story that surrounds Alban – will it be Sophie or the mathematician.

The mathematician drives him up to Garbadale and makes a subtle but convincing pitch to stay with him. But all she can do is wait to see what happens when Sophie arrives.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Steep Approach to Garbadale

By now the style of flashbacks is starting to become familiar but it still can be frustrating. The frustration is when a memory seems unconnected to the next piece of plot development.

You can’t quite work out why Alban keeps going back to the drugged out losers he has been hanging around with in Perth. The complexity of his love life starts to unfold with the memory of chasing and then capturing the heart of the mathematics professor who is his on-off girlfriend. That is interspersed with flashbacks of him desperately trying to get in touch with Sophie after their families had separated them.

A question starts to form in your mind that is quite crucial to your participation in the story. Do you like Alban? Is something you keep asking, quickly followed up by whether or not you want him to get back with Sophie.

You might want him to discover who drive his mother to suicide but as to his personal love life – well let’s see of we care when it comes to that bit.

More next week…

Lunchtime read: The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Fielding manages to convince Alban to join him on the London tour of his campaign to get support to fight the takeover deal. On the list of people to visit are Fielding’s parents as well as Alban’s own.

A smattering of recollections about one night stands with beautiful women and an awkward trip to Paris with Fielding’s brother are interspersed with a chance to meet old family.

But the main story gets another injection of pace when Alban sits with his father drinking and starts to ask questions about his mother. Through the flashback device you sit in the mind of the mother as she puts on the poacher’s coat, fills the pockets with stones and walks out into the sea.

The father clears himself of suspicion but that just points the finger at someone else in the family keeping the mystery going. Other flashbacks also detail the moment the teenage relationship with Sophie took on a sexual element and the moment when they were discovered by her father and their grandmother.

More tomorrow…