Cover of The Steep Approach to Garbadale

The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Iain Banks
390 pages
published in 2007

A few days ago Roz Kaveney, in a review of Bank's latest Culture novel, argued that it's the Iain M. Banks science fiction novels are his serious contribution to literature, while the conventional literary novels he writes as Iain Banks are "more frivolous and irresponsible". Not a new idea for us science fiction fans perhaps, but she was writing for the Times Literary Supplement after all, and they require baby steps. Which is to say, in a rather roundabout way, that The Steep Approach to Garbadale for all its bluster is not a very serious book, but more an, as Graham Greene would say, entertainment.

Which doesn't make it a bad book, of course, just that it isn't another Wasp Factory. it is in fact somewhat of a remake of The Crow Road, another saga about a large sprawling Scottish family with deep dark secret at its core. Something Banks had said he has a weakness for. Where The Steep Approach to Garbadale differs is that it has much less dark humour - no exploding grandmothers here.

The story revolves around Alban McGill, a member of the extended Wopuld family, the heirs to the large board and computer game making company, whose original boardgame, Empire! was huge when Monopoly was just an upstart game and has now been translated to various series of computer and console games. Alban has distanced himself from his family, having resigned from his job in the family firm and sold most of his shares years ago to pursue a career as a forester. Now invalided out due to white finger, he's living in a council estate in Glasgow when his cousin Fielding tracks him down. The firm is holding an extraordinary general meeting to decide whether or not to sell out to huge American games conglomerate Spraint and Fielding wants him to help him convince the family not to, which Alban reluctantly agrees with.

Alban's reasons for dropping out of his family are made clear in the second storyline, set in Alban's past. It all revolves around his cousin Sophie, with whom he falls in love with during one summer when he's sixteen. She falls in love with him too and slowly they start to fool around, reluctant to do much at first. Not surprisingly, it will all end in tears in the end and Alban never quite gets over her.

In the third storyline, Alban's more recent past is followed, from when he started working as a troubleshooter for the firm, until the moment he quits. Several incidents are revealed in this thread that will prove to be of significance in the final denouncement.

While I didn't quite predict the exact resolution, the broad outlines of it were predictable from an early part of the story. It was clear that the romance between Alban and Sophie would end badly, that there was some bigger secret behind it, that something hadn't been told to Alban and that his mother's suicide had something to do with it. As such it was a bit disappointing.

This still left an enjoyable, if slight novel, a comfortable read. Not always a recommendation and this is far from the best of any of Banks' novels, but it isn't A Song of Stone either.

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Webpage created 07-02-2008, last updated 07-02-2008.