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Canal Dreams

Canal Dreams - Iain Banks So, what to say about Canal Dreams?

Well, this was always going to be the most problematic of Banks' work, especially since he himself saw this as perhaps his weakest work. And in many ways I can see why. It rather feels like 2 novels put together - the first half reads like a diary; a travelog and a mildly politicised commentary on the world in 1989 (when the book was published). The second half reads like an action movie, with added flashbacks, strange dreams and a (un)healthy dose of nihilism thrown in for good measure. The style and content whiplash is quite unnerving, though I suspect this was entirely deliberate on the part of Banks. What starts as a relatively gentle inconsequential little story suddenly turns unerringly violent, deadly serious and curiously apocalyptic - with world-renowned cellist Hisako thrust into the role of unlikely vigilante by events that unfurl around her.

That the book is in any way successful is down to the impeccable writing style of Banks, and is the thing that keeps you reading, despite the flaws with the plot, character development (apart from Hisako) and, at times, sheer unpleasantness of events towards the end of the book. It reminded me in a way of A Song of Stone, another one of his more problematic novels - another of his that's beautifully written but also quite unnerving and uncomfortable to read at times, as if the author is daring us to not close the book and put it back on the shelf. The main difference between the two novels for me is Hisako, who, after a while, becomes more and more sympathetic as the book develops and the more we find out about her. Towards the end there were bits about her past that frankly almost moved me to tears, especially when juxtaposed with her utterly hopeless experiences in the 'here-and-now'. I left the book wanting to know what became of her in the end, and hoping against hope that she somehow would turn out alright.

All in all, a lesser Banks, but well-worth reading nonetheless - especially for fans of his other works. It's nowhere near his best - for me that will always remain either The Crow Road or Whit - but it has its merits, if you can stomach the violence. However, newcomers should not approach either this or A Song of Stone as a first Banks book as it's liable to put you off an absolutely wonderful writer for life.