I’m standing fifty metres above the firth of Stoun, in the middle of the road bridge, at the summit of the long, shallow trajectory it describes above the waters. Below, wind-stroked lines of breakers track up the firth, ragged creases of thin foam moving east to west under the steady push of the breeze; each wave forming, breaking, widening, then collapsing again before the new crests start to rise amongst their pale, streaked remains, the whole doomed army of them vanishing like ghosts into the upriver blur. Traffic moves on the northbound carriageway behind me; cars tearing, trucks rumbling and thumping over the expansion joints on the road surface. About half the cars and most of the trucks have their lights on as the evening, and the mist close in. I look up at the north tower of the suspension bridge, a double H shape rising another hundred metres into the murk, its grey flank stitched with little steady red lights. At the top there’s a single aircraft beacon producing sharp bursts the blue-white of a camera flash. The mist smears each pulse across a whole grey tract of sky.
In the beginning of the slow-burn, moody novel Stonemouth from Iain Banks, Stewart Gilmour, a young man in his mid 20s, stands on the suspension bridge on the outside of town. He’s about to gain permission to return to his Scottish hometown, the place he fled from 5 years earlier, to attend a funeral. It’s symbolic that Stewart, the novel’s narrator, should wait for the decision on the bridge–after all it’s a spot with some history. It’s a popular site for suicides, and at least one of those suicides is mired in controversy. On the surface, Stonemouth seems to be a dull-as-dishwater town where nothing much happens, but that’s mainly because outsiders have no idea how the town is controlled by two rival crime families, the Murstons and the MacAvetts. And five years before, Stewart Gilmour was stupid enough to get in the middle.
Mike MacAvett is the other daddy in town. Though when Al–my dad–says ‘his boys’ he doesn’t mean either of Mike Mac’s sons. On the other hand, he doesn’t mean proper, full-on, tooled-up, Mafia-style gangsters, either. We’re not at that point here, not yet, anyway. All a bit more subtle and low-key than that. The Murstons and the Mike Mac run their businesses with the minimum of fuss, and no guns. They have the weaponry, but they’ve broken it out only twice in the last fifteen year, as far as I know, when a couple of gangs from Aberdeen and Glasgow thought they might muscle their way in towards what they mistakenly thought looked like easy pickings amongst us hicks up here.
Joe Murston, the patriarch of the Murston clan, once a man Stewart admired and could even claim a friendship of sorts, is dead. Stewart’s back to ‘pay his respects.’ The situation is delicate and tentative at best. Although Stewart is staying with his parents, he must first get clearance that it’s ok for him to return to Murston territory. He’s told by Powell an “overstuffed, upgraded bouncer,” Donald Murston’s thug-of-choice, and once a schoolmate of Stewart’s, that he’s “clear to land.” The funeral is on a Monday and Stewart is to get out of Dodge by Tuesday.
Thinking he’s got an all-clear, a pass through town, Stewart returns, but things immediately begin to go wrong. His presence in town is, at best, tolerated, but several ramped-up henchmen wouldn’t mind gaining points for making Stewart’s stay unpleasant and painful. His movements are monitored and he’s constantly threatened by various thugs. Stewart knows he’s walking a fine line, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking answers to past events.
Stewart is now based in London and is quite successful. In fact being tossed out of Stonemouth may have worked in his favour, but right from the start we know that Stewart won’t be able to avoid meeting his past–in fact he wants some sort of closure to the events that led to him running for his life. Gradually as Stewart reconnects with various people from his past, memories of the events that took place 5 years before are pieced together, and he realises that there are more questions than answers.
Stonemouth builds slowly with a gathering sense of menace. For this reader, the novel’s strength lies in the descriptions of the town and the characters rather than the plot. A large early chunk of the novel lays the groundwork for the later action as Stewart reminisces about his childhood and the brutal death of a playmate. Clearly the present cannot be separated from the past, and gradually we learn just what a now matured Stewart did to be run out-of-town. Several scenes show Stewart being as obsequious as possible-he practically bows, scrapes and licks the floor in order to be allowed to stay in town, and while he wrestles with this sort of humiliation, he takes it. Does he feel as though he needs to make some sort of penance?
While I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape, the drabness of small town life, the various believable characters, and the dynamics of the two crime families, Stewart continuing to carry a torch for a woman five years after the event is problematic, and I wasn’t entirely convinced. Stewart lives in London, he’s moderately successful, and he’s put his past behind him, and yet he takes his life in his hands to return and sort out the unresolved situation he has with a woman from his past. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn just what Stewart did to get kicked out-of-town, and somehow, for this reader, while the revelation raised some intriguing possibilities regarding those events, I found Stewart’s quixotic desire to return less plausible. I also disliked the ending which seemed out of step with the rest of the novel, but that criticism aside, I hope someone turns this into a film.