This is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fairly trite one. A mid-twenties man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and spends the time reminiscing about growing up, being astonished at the changes that have taken place and equally astonished at the things that remain unchanged, and resolving a few loose ends from his departure five years before. So far, so ho-hum. The twist here is that the setting is a small town set in the northeast of Scotland, ruled in relative calm by two gangster families, and our hero was run out of town after almost marrying the daughter of one family.
The setting was one of the attractions for me. I live less than two hours' drive from the supposed location of the town of Stonemouth, and many of the descriptions of the beaches, forests and streets rang very true. Banks' descriptive prose is wonderfully lyrical, and captured the atmosphere beautifully. It was a little disconcerting that a major road bridge played a prominent role in the story; there are so few of those up here, that I kept visualising it as one of the known bridges - the Kessock bridge was my personal mental image - which pulled the book's geography out of alignment, as if the map was stretched out of true.
The childhood reminiscences worked less well. Some were funny and some were tragic but none of them really tore at my heart as perhaps they should have done. Some of main character Stewart's friends were, frankly, too stupid for words. The book interleaves the present-day events with vignettes from the past in order to keep hidden a couple of mysteries: what Stewart did to get him run out of town, and what really happened to the brother of his almost-wife? These were enough to keep me turning the pages, so they worked as intended, but frankly the revelations weren't particularly mind-blowing.
Stewart himself is rather a nothing character. He seems fairly blank, rarely expressing any emotion other than fear, although his continuing affection for almost-wife Ellie is rather touching. Of the others, Ferg the sardonic bisexual is far and away the most interesting. I'd have been happy reading an entire book about him, actually. The rest were either caricatures (Ellie's thuggish brothers, the stupid friends) or nonentities (like Ellie herself, drifting aimlessly through life), although Ellie's younger sister Grier probably rates a mention as having slightly more personality.
The final chapters are melodramatic, which seems to be obligatory these days, and the story then tailspins off into an implausible resolution for the main characters. The plot also fails one of my favourite tests: could most of the plot be resolved if the principals simply sat down and talked everything through? In this case, it was a puzzle to me why Ellie, in particular, didn't say to her family: I'll decide my own future, thank you very much. As she does, in fact, later on. The plot hinges on her being the sort of person who allows herself to be pushed around, but only until the plot requires her to push back. So that was a big fail, as far as I'm concerned. Three stars.