Nesbit Likes: The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks

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A while ago, several years in fact, I remember a Goodreads group titled something along the lines of I like books about weird people. There were hundreds of suggestions, books that explore a particular mind, to demonstrate our human variety in it’s lunacy and madness. Before reading through the list, however, I was certain one book deserved a high place in the rankings. Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory has been a long time personal favourite, a story of a very strange character, and rightly so, it was topping the selection, like a scary cherry.

There are no spoilers below!

The story goes. Frank, 16, lives on a small island in Scotland with his father. He spends his time building dams, going for long walks along the beach, getting drunk at the pub. Fairly normal. Frank’s days are also peppered with some other activities, including hunting small animals with his home made weapons, reciting memorised measurements of household objects, worshipping shrines, and, occasionally, murdering people. Not so normal, I suppose, the murders, as the blurb suggests, “I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is an odd book. It’s about an odd person, who does odd things. You’ll find little sympathy, you’ll be uncomfortable, and it’s undoubtedly quite an unpleasant read.

But that’s not to say it’s a bad read – in fact, it’s the complete opposite. Whilst there are no role models, characters you’ll (hopefully!) find no relation to, the book has a huge conversion weight; Banks writes strange characters that beg discovery. It’s like covering your eyes with your hands during a horror film, but you peek between your fingers – you want to know what happens, you must know more about this person’s life, why there’s no official record of his birth, why his father imposes control, and what will happen to Eric, his older brother, who has escaped a mental institution and is coming home.

I’m afraid there’s not much more to say. The book delivers twists and turns, unexpected corners that quickly approach giving no guess for the road ahead. It’s a game of Pass the Parcel, and you’ve no idea how many layers there are, or how deep the rabbit hole goes, which only cements Banks’ talent in storytelling. You’ll have to be the one to start unwrapping. Be warned, the novel is staggered with grim events, awful memories, peculiar thoughts, and rises in increments of ghastly proportions, meeting a climax that will truly – truly – haunt.

Written with delicacy married to a strong narration, at times beautiful and poetic in prose, Banks’ first novel is brilliant. There’s controversy regarding a few things (some which are self evident) but I think that only goes to strengthen the book. This is a great horror, and achieves it’s purpose: to disturb, to wrought. Any good horror will make you feel uneasy… yet have you curious for more.

This is not for the faint of heart,  and I strongly recommend it.

Nesbit Likes: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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This week’s Nesbit Likes – as well as the next few – will take a step from poetry and focus on prose. More specifically, novels that have been brilliant reads, each a strong recommendation for your next book.

There are no spoilers below!

To some, Darnielle is well known as the lead singer / songwriter for the band The Mountain Goats. Like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, he has shown his beautiful prose in novels, where music is a clear aid to great writing.

The story goes. Main character Sean Phillips runs a play-by-mail roleplaying game called Trace Italian. Strangers from all over the country take part, sending him their decisions and actions and he replies with the consequences, akin a Dungeon Master. It catches wind and a good handful of people take part, which means a lot of work and writing for Sean. Suited for him, as he spends most of his time indoors, leading an introvert life.

But there’s real horror to Wolf in White Van. Told non-chronologically, we slowly learn about Sean and his world. Pieces are put together of a picture we cannot begin to predict. In their practice, crime novels may shape a future, where we suppose the ends will be tied. But there’s no mystery here. Instead, this finished jigsaw puzzle details the dramatic events of his life: we explore his childhood, his adolescence, his experiences with love, his family, how his game, Trace Italian, brought severe peril to two teenagers, and how his face became severely disfigured.

It’s not long after starting this book before you realise the text has sunk it’s hooks, and you’re compelled to continue, eager to find out what Sean isn’t necessarily hiding, but has prepared for you in time. With an unforgettable final act, an ending that has lingered for months, this is a refreshing example of storytelling done well.

The characters are raw and delicate; the delivery is forceful and frightening. With efficient prose, at times wondrous and vivid, this was a brilliant read. Darnielle writes peacefully, with delicious syntax and control, and then he pulls the rug out from under your feet, before you even knew the rug was there.