Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory was recommended to be just before Christmas by a friend of mine after I expressed a liking for Ruth Rendell’s Live Flesh. The link from the book being discussed to this recommendation implied to me that the book would be tense, atmospheric and deeply psychological, all of the things I love in a book. And it was, but for some reason, some niggling nag in the back of my mind, I just couldn’t fall in love with this particular book.

I’ve waited a month or so before attempting to write this view in the hope that the reason for my inability to get lost in The Wasp Factory would eventually become clear to me, and I think, maybe, it finally has.

Frank.

The Wasp Factory is narrated by seventeen year old Frank as he takes us through his isolated day to day life in a remote part of the Scottish Highland. Frank’s only real friend is a  local dwarf named and, to some extent perhaps, his estranged, mentally unstable brother Eric.

It become clear quite early on that Frank too has unresolved, violent anger issues. We know he’s killed three other children during his own childhood, and is largely unable to say why. We also witness Frank killing various animals for both ritualistic and vengeful reasons. Banks does extremely well to write from the mind of this unstable, twisted young man, and succeeds in making you feel very uncomfortable – as a good psychological thriller should. The loneliness with which he describes Frank’s surroundings combines perfectly with a narration that is almost so strange and isolated it balances just on the right side of pushing you out entirely. It was eerie, and tense, again, just as a thriller should be.

But, I feel this book was lacking the seductiveness that should lie subtly beneath the surface of a thriller. Granted, the imagery of the Scottish location is beautiful. The misty beaches, the rough paths, the village streets, it was all very beautiful and evocative in its isolation. But there was nothing seductive about it. One of the reasons I loved Rendell’s writing was that I was sucked in, something about the way she manages to make Victor seem so vulnerable and (dare I say it) like-able, is in a way seductive. But Frank was just… strange, for want of a better word. There was clearly some unknown or misunderstood trauma there, but it meerely presented itself as violent anger and strange superstition, to the extent to which Frank just didn’t seem real.

And there in lies the problem. As an avid reader and writer, I am of the belief that character drives plot. And the characterisation here was lacking. Every character is in someway similar. Frank is angry and isolated and in a way, nonchalant, Eric is angry and mad and isolated, their father is angry and isolated and, also arguably a bit mad. But the three of them could quite easily merge into one character.

This, and the narrative structure serves to make the novel somewhat repetitive. Perhaps this was design, in fact I largely suspect it was, but it wasn’t to my taste. Yes it added to the mundane isolation of the story, but it wasn’t exactly interesting to read. In fact on many occasions I was almost convinced I’d read certain sections before. Frank goes out, kills some animals,  performs some kind of ritual, receives a nonsensical call from Eric, tries to gain access to his fathers study, fails, goes to bed, goes out, kills some animals, performs some kind of ritual… well you get the idea. Added to this, again for effect, is the constant mention of Frank’s ‘accident’. For the first half of the book we are aware that Frank has had some kind of accident that has left him ‘disabled’ in some way. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this ‘disability’ refers to his genitals in some way. The narrative and references are far too seedy and uncomfortable for it to not be about genitals.

In extension of this, I twigged what the classic thriller ending would entail in one way or another, by the time we were told what the ‘accident’ had entailed. It was all just a little too predictable in my opinion. I loved Rendell because I thought I’d figured out where she was taking me, and then she changed direction again, Banks led me in one direction and that direction turned out to be the way straight to the end. No real shocks, nothing to make me question my initial guess, nothing to really thrill me. Though something has to be said of the fact that I stuck with the book to the end, just to see if I was right in my prediction. It’s just a shame that Banks didn’t throw another spanner in the works at any point.

So, my advice would be, if you’re looking for a good example of isolated writing, writing of location and the occasional dark comedy elements, then this is your book. If you’re after multiple twists and turns, excitement and unpredictablity then this probably isn’t one for you. It was an interesting read I’ll grant, but not one I’m likely to bend the spine of through frequent loans or revisiting.

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