History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: This Bildungsroman is set in the fictional Argyll town of Gallanach (by its description, reminiscent of Oban but on the north east shore of Loch Crinan), the real village of Lochgair, and in Glasgow where Prentice McHoan lives. Prentice's uncle Rory has disappeared eight years previous while writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with papers his uncle left behind and sets out to solve the mystery. Along the way he must cope with estrangement from his father, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, and failure at his studies.
The estrangement from his father concerns belief in God or an afterlife. Prentice cannot accept a universe without some higher power, some purpose; he can't believe that people can just cease to exist when they die. His father dogmatically denies the existence of God, universal purpose, and the afterlife.
A parallel plot is Prentice's gradual transition from an adolescent fixation on one young woman to a more mature love for another.
Prentice's efforts to piece together Uncle Rory's fragmentary notes and the minimal clues surrounding his disappearance mirror his efforts to make sense of the world, love, and life in general. The narrative is also fragmentary, leaping days, months, years, or decades back and forth with little or no warning, so the reader must also piece things together.
Review: Lots of people take the crow road in this book as we follow the narrator, Prentice McHoan, a student from the fictional town of Gallanach in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. He’s the classic young man on a journey, and he’s got a quest - to find a missing person - but along the way he has lots of sex, drink and drugs, and has his heart broken and mended. Everything a growing boy needs, in fact.
Prentice is drawn into a family mystery involving the disappearance of his favourite uncle, Rory McHoan - a peaceable, bohemian, motorbiking travel writer. When we begin, Rory's been gone for years, but the mystery takes a new twist after the death of Prentice's grandmother brings him back to Gallanach from Glasgow, where he's been studying.
At the funeral, Prentice meets up with his auntie Janice, uncle Rory's partner at the time of his disappearance. After bedding her - and it wouldn't be an Iain Banks book without some form of taboo-busting smut - Prentice comes into possession of some of Rory's papers and a few ancient computer disks. This unfinished writing project is called "The Crow Road".
In deciphering it, Prentice lifts the lid on secrets that plague the lives of his family - including his father, Kenneth, a children's writer and committed atheist, his uncle Fergus, who owns the local glassware factory, and also his childhood friend Ashley, whose uncle Lachlan, you might say, has one eye on events.
There's a mystery story - two, in fact, if we separate the quest to find out what happened to Rory and the struggle to reactivate and decipher his wonky old computer disks - but it's not a mystery novel. And despite the bildungsroman framing, Prentice's journey isn't the sole driver of the plot, either. This book has otherworldly concerns on its mind; in examining very big things in microcosm through Prentice's family, we gain an understanding of sorts about the universe - or at least, we form a truce with our own curiosity as to what it's all about. We miss a lot of things, Banks says. Often the greatest truths are right there under our nose.
Opening Line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Closing Line: “I thought of Ashley, on the other side of that ocean, and wondered what she was doing right now, and hoped that she was well, and happy, and maybe thinking of me, and then I just stood there, grinning like a fool, and took a deep, deep breath of that sharp, smoke-scented air and raised my arms to the open sky, and said, ‘Ha!’
Quotes: “People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots... in fact I think they have to be... a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.”