‘The Crow Road’ by Iain Banks (1992)
It’s a family story, a love story, a story of loss, of growing up and maturing, of becoming a man, with an opening sentence to stop you in your tracks. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
It’s 1990, and the extended McHoan family have gathered for the funeral of the matriarch, Grandma Margot. They’re a colourful bunch. A collection of feuds, affairs, resentments, hatreds and devotions, united by a deep-seated love for Gallanach, the family home. But Margot has been cremated with her pacemaker in place. Hence the explosion.
Prentice McHoan is Margot’s grandson. He’s a troubled young man, looking for love and not finding it. He’s also obsessed with finding his Uncle Rory, a flamboyant hippy, accidental travel writer and charismatic loved by many. But disappeared. Perhaps away “the crow road”, as they say, in an old Scottish metaphor for dead. He’s left behind scraps of writings, ancient floppy disks, a collection of diaries with coded entries. This is a family with a mystery at its heart. Prentice took me with him on his quest.
The book is suffused with whiskey, the drug of choice for Prentice and his family. It’s a hymn of praise for Scotland, from the grimy Glasgow streets to “Gallanach . . . the crumpled hills beyond, the brindle of forests to the east and the glitter of waves to the west, where the ocean was”. A celebration of family, too. Despite their feuding, fighting, and falling in and out of love with each other, the McHoans are the kind of clan you’d want to belong to. And they sure know how to throw a good party.
But it’s the story of Rory, the missing McHoan, that drives the narrative onwards. How is he connected to the death in a car crash of his sister Fiona, married to the wealthy Fergus? For those who love a good ending, Banks knits the loose threads into a garment rich and rare. And Prentice, eventually, gets the girl.