Crow Road

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Publisher: Abacus (1993)

ISBN: 0 349 10323 2

Précis: 'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach'

Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied; mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances...

Be warned! To proceed reading below here is to risk spoilers about the story of the book. It is recommended that you proceed only after having first read the novel.

Summary: Through Prentice's musing at the funeral for his grandmother we are introduced to the McHoan family. Livening up the funeral is the rapid appearance of the village doctor who not only has forgotten to remove the pacemaker of Prentice's grandmother but suffers a stroke from all the excitment and rush in trying to get to the funeral on time. Prentice is worried about his finances, having recently argued with his father and unable to acccept money from him as a matter of pride, and equally worried about his studies which he can't quite seem to dedicate himself too.

This pre-occupation helps to prevent him from declaring his undy love for Verity and instead, when he sees his brother somewhat more successfully declaring his interest in Verity, leads to deep depression. Heading back to Glasgow in abject misery he is not helped when his brother begins to become a celebrity on the comic circuit and invites him to one of his shows at a pub. By chance however he runs into the partner of the long absent, presumed abroad, Uncle Rory. Through that meeting he is given some of the documents Rory was using as the genesis of his next book 'The Crow Road', which according to family rumour was going to be his best book.

Prentice, curious as to the fate of his Uncle, begins reading the items and investigating Rory's whereabouts. However he is brought back to Gallanach again to learn that his brother and Verity have engaged to be married. Getting hideously drunk he embarrases himelf further in family circles by engaging in very public and bitter recriminations against his brother and Verity. Again depressed he returns to Glasgow, but before he leaves Ashley mentions that a reporter she encountered by chance seems to know something about someone being fooled in Gallanach region, with the implication being that it is a member of Prentice's family and is somehow related to Rory.

To add to his troubles Prentice is now out of money, definitely failed his courses for this year and was caught at his first abortive attempt at shoplifting. To cap things off he receives word that his father has died. Returning back to Gallanach again for his fathers funeral he re-evaluates his thoughts on death and the divine, the very topics that he argued with his father about so heatedly, and in the process has an epiphany of sorts. Affected by both his fathers death, the funeral and events surrounding the funeral Prentice returns back to Glasgow with new resolve.

Using some inherited funds he hires a good lawyer to beat the shoplifting charge and re-applies himself to both the search for Rory and his much neglected studies. Thus he begins the new year afresh. His search turns up not only that the reporter won't talk about who is being fooled, even seemed nervous when Prentice turned up, but that a longtime relative in-law to the family knows him. With Ashley's help he manages to get some more of Rory's design notes from some old computer discs that Prentice's father was keeping for Rory.

Reading through them he learns of various events in family history. Confirming them with a call to an Australian friend of the family he begins to suspect one particular family member of foul play, not only in Rory's disappearance but in another older family matter. Confronting the family member he is unable to get any conclusive proof but he does come away sure of his deductions. After foiling an abortive burglary attempt that night Prentice is surprised to learn that the family member has killed themselves.

After the reading of the will Prentice is further surprised to find he has been left two items, and even more surprised when Rory's remains are found in a loch not too far from Gallanach. He is downright astounded when he discovers that some of his darker deeds have long been known about and slowly life begins to settle back to normal again. Finally he at last wakes up to the fact that Ashley has always cared for him, far more than Verity ever seemed likely to, and with their nascent relationship established he at last answers his own questions about death and divinity - realising a measure of inner peace at last.

Comments: The summary has dropped a lot of the texture of the book. For starters significant sections are told in flashback form as various of the characters remember events. To further complicate things the main narrative starts well near the end of the timeline of the events covered by the story. This is not to say that things don't unfold clearly, far from it, merely that the narrativve style is nicely complex. (But nowhere near as byzantine as 'Use of Weapons' or 'The Bridge'.)

But by far and above the biggest change in the book is the whole tone of it. This is an uplifting tale and very happy in tone, even while detailing the more tragic events in the tale the tone is nearly always cheerful. Also, by working in Prentice's struggles with death & divinity, it works as a wonderful pro-atheist story - affirming and explaining exactly why atheism can be such a positive outlook on life. His second book to try and do this in a similar fashion is 'Whit' which, to me, didn't work nearly as well as this tale.

All in all this book is an entirely different animal from most of Iain's other books, in that it is a fully cheerful and fairly non-violent tale, while still retaining that sense of humour and strength of narrative that are hallmarks of his books. If you see this book, grab it, as it is well worth keeping in your collection.

Philip R. Banks
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