By Iain Banks
Published by Little, Brown.
RRP $36.99

What every writer aspires to is a terrific voice.   All the fancy prose in the world is no substitute for that sacred, special and often rare thing, ‘a voice’.   I’ve envied ‘voices’ in creative writing classes, where colleagues who’ve never written a novel before have somehow nailed that very thing that elusive and special thing, we call ‘voice’.   But harder still, is to sustain that voice for the length of a novel and to keep it fresh and real.
               Right from the start, I was mesmerised by the narrator’s voice, Stewart (or Stu or Stuie) with his brilliant observations of the world.   Stewart from Stonemouth, ‘an estuary town north of Aberdeen’ (a fictitious Scottish town – well, at least I do hope so).   A town so articulately recalled and vivified through the memories of Stewart, who has returned home from London for a funeral.   No ordinary funeral either.   The funeral of the father and grandfather of one of Stonemouth’s head crime families; the Murstons.  Essentially, there are two crime families (the Murstons and Mike MacAvett) who run the town and Stewart used to be on side with both of them.     That is, until he crossed the Murston family and was run out of town.  
               It takes quite a while before you find out why Stewart was driven out of town.   There’s menace right from the start when Stewart’s standing on the bridge above the Firth of Stoun, watching the water – a bridge monitored by cameras because of its notoriety for suicides – evidently it’s not the jump that kills you, you just break all your bones when you hit the water and that renders you useless for swimming, and so you drown.    Stu (via Iain Banks) doesn’t hold back on detail.   He has this delightful Scottish story-telling brogue with just the right balance of cynical detachment and clinical self observation spiced with unsentimental insight into his fellow characters.   It reminded me of reading ‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford.  Not the themes so much as the ability to draw the reader so acutely into the heart of the story through the eye of the protagonist and to boot, the accent.  In this case, I found myself reading with a broad Scottish accent.  I loved that.   And sometimes I went into perfect Glaswegian when the character called for it.  
               Stonemouth is a scary place if you happen to fall out with either of the key players and their families.   I wanted to disbelieve in it, but Iain Banks would have me believe in it.   It is so perfectly described that you feel he knows this territory intimately.   In my last review of a novel I complained about label-dropping, but Stu names cars and clothes all the time to perfect effect – it amplifies the whole neighbourhood, in particular the crime families.
               The plot unravels with Stu returning for the funeral of Jo Murston and then reminiscing about growing up in Stonemouth and how he got to be run out of town.  There’s a constant sense of menace throughout the novel and yet he’s only home for a few days, possibly just the weekend, for the funeral.    I found my tolerance tested, but I guess it’s the mark of a good writer that I stayed with it, in spite of my distaste at times.  
               An example of the humour I really enjoyed - the Murston brothers are setting the record straight for Stu when he starts dating their sister Ellie. “All four were wearing new jeans – with what looked suspiciously like ironed-in creases – and padded tartan shirts over different designer tees.  The tartan shirts were pretty bulky.  It was like being intimidated by a convention of Highland hotel sofas.” Ellie is central to the story.    It’s a coming of age and a love story with the back-drop of tough working-class made-it-rich characters, families with form and history in the town, a sense of belonging that is palpable.
               I also love this when Stewart goes out for the evening with his parents to celebrate having made partnership in London
  “Mum drove us out to the Turrie Inn, near Roadside of Durrens on the Loanstoun road.  Fine meal, fine wine.  Place was busy on the strength of the chef’s word-of-mouth reputation, some magazine features and rumours of a Michelin star next year, maybe.”  And then, “Quietly pissed, but feeling like a child again, I watched through the side window of the Audi as a waning moon like a paring from Gods’ big toenail flickered between the black trunks of sentry trees riding lines of distant hills.”
               Banks milks the Scottish brogue and the language but it’s never overdone.
“...names already slipping from common use, and not really that much help.  If a girl said ‘Is that a cuckoo?, and you said, ‘Naw, quine, yon’s a gowk’ you’d generally be looked at aghast, like you were talking a foreign language.   Which you kind of were.”
 “Fine Scoatish name.  Whereaboots in the Toun ye wantin?”  
               Stonemouth is the toun to all of the characters.
This novel comes with a warning.  If you don’t like swearing, sex and a constant sense of menace as well as some nasty descriptions of potential violence (not always enacted), then this book is definitely not your sort of book.    But if you like good writing, enjoy coming of age stories, love, smart-arsed witty dialogue and insightful observations of human character and small towns, then you may very find Stu and his friends, just the ticket – a canny, wise, but slightly foolish character the number of times he tempts fate with the Murstons, but a man with a heart and a growing sense of decent philosophical insight into the world.  I couldn’t put it down, even though I didn’t really like the level of violence or many of the characters, apart from Stu and Ellie.

Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.