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Good read but flawed
on 11 March 2000
Espedair Street is presumably a novel Iain Banks had planned from his youth - Being lyric writer for a mega-successful rock band is an obvious fantasy for any talented writer since the 1950's - (and for many non-talented writers too, no doubt). It is also a novel that had been on my to-read list since I first started reading Banks' work a few years ago, spurred on by the enticing back-of-book notes. In common some of his later novels, noticeably Whit, Espedair Street is told in two different timeframes. The narrator, Daniel Weir, gives scenes of his current life amongst the have-nots of Glasgow, holed up in a disused Church, interspersed with the details of his career in Music that lead him to this point. Then a man from his past turns up in his present with news that creates a crisis of conscience, the resolution of which takes us through the closing chapters. As in all his work, Banks' words flow well off the page, and the novel is laced with plenty of imagination and wit, and a good pace is maintained throughout helped by a constant shifting of scene. The background to Weir's home provide an interesting fore-runner to the religion in Whit, and there are memorable scenes with a drunk dog and a pigeon, and in an aeroplane around Kent. The fight scene in the night club is skilfully choreographed, and the accidents that befall his friends are also well thought out. However, on completing the book I was left feeling that the sum of the novel added up to less than sum of the parts. The characterisations were fine as far as they went but I felt they lacked depth. In this his latter friends were better drawn than the fellow band members. I was left wondering if Banks' point was the shallowness of rock stars, but I was left wanting to know more of how Dave and Christine were changed by fame. His lover Inez, apart from a certain hardness of heart, and Janet, his first never developed any personality except for the roles they played for him. The biggest failing though was in the sympathies the book failed to engage. In this I don't think Banks was well served by those back-of-book notes. I never felt that Weir's predicament was as bad as I was meant to feel. Certainly he was living a life that was a wee bit squalid, but it was a life of his own choosing and as the denouement of the night club scene showed he always had the means to escape it. Sure his relationship with his father and the death of his friends were serious events, but the overall picture was not as bleak as I had expected from the dramatic opening paragraph. Espedair Street gets three stars out of five because the reading of it was an enjoyable experience, while it lasted. The plot was a simple one, and as a whole it did not get me thinking about any 'issues' as I like the best of fiction to do. I was left with a feeling that Banks had set up an interesting situation but had not been quite sure where to take it, and taken refuge in sentimentality. I could recommend you read this book, but not as strongly as I would 'Whit' or 'The Crow Road'